The Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), which organised the unofficial strikes and rig occupations in the North Sea in 1989 and '90, has decided to form itself into a trade union for offshore workers. Here, the OILC Standing Committee explain their actions.
Anyone expecting euphoria at the formal announcement of the formation of an Offshore Workers' Union at the Queens Hotel in Brighton in 3 October was to be sadly disappointed.
The OILC had earlier been unofficially briefed on the outcome of a meeting held that morning, chaired by Alex Ferry of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, which was attended by national officers of nine unions with interests offshore.
They emerged declaring that the interests of offshore workers were to be placed in the hands of a loose alliance of the unions who would make up a sub-committee of the CSEU. Whilst it was commendable that all the unions had finally sat down and agreed on something, on examination it became clear that the structure being proposed fell far short of that which was advocated by the OILC in its analytical document, 'Striking Out'.
It was not to be independently certified, would not have executive control over its constituent members, may at some vague point in the future have negotiating rights, the constituent unions would carry on much as they have been doing up to now, but would develop a "common strategy". There was to be no formal role for OILC nor any indication of support for the Offshore Information Centre. Dual membership was out.
In short, it had no clear identity as an offshore workers' organisation and was a recipe for the continuation of sectional interests. It was evident to those who would be expected to sell it, that it would be no more relevant to the workforce than the Inter-Union Offshore Oil Committee was!
What was surprising was that this represented a dilution of the proposals which were unanimously endorsed by local, some national officials and lay delegates at the IUOOC meeting at the TUC in Glasgow only four weeks previously. It became obvious that reducing any proposed structure to the level of a sub-committee was necessary in order to coerce the AEU and EETPU to become involved.
No alternative to new union
After discussion, the OILC representatives decided that they had no other alternative but to exercise the mandate given by the Standing Committee and announce to the waiting media that OILC was to apply for certification as an independent trade union for offshore workers.
No euphoria! It is difficult to be euphoric knowing that you are bound to be accused of deserting the trade union movement when the reality is that it has deserted you, or at least some of the officials controlling it have.
In place of euphoria there was determination and confidence that, whilst regrettable, the step that was being taken was the correct one in the circumstances, was justifiable and more, it would work!
We cannot be accused of being hasty. More than three years has passed since the Piper Alpha and Ocean Odyssey disasters and in that time the OILC has repeatedly called on the unions to flag up an effective united front to the employers, the oil companies and the workforce. This they have patently failed to do, despite the late, though commendable, efforts of some unions.
By their prevarication throughout the debate, and their hostility to an independent confederation, the AEU and EETPU in particular have signalled:
(a) that they are happy to continue the sectional divisions of the past;
(b) that they do not place any importance on the wishes of their offshore members;
(c) that the effective representation of offshore workers, especially in the area of safety, is a minor matter which is peripheral to what they regard as the more important matter of union power broking.
This group has ensured that the watered down 'confederation' will be stillborn, with no relevance to the majority of workers.
Most people working offshore just want to get on with it. This does not mean, however, that they are unfeeling, unthinking robots. Most could be persuaded of the benefits of trade union representation (many already are), but it is small wonder that many have been disaffected and apathetic when faced with the confusion, disarray and downright insensitivity of those who previously claimed to represent them.
The only way out of the morass into which these unions have plunged us is the step now taken by the OILC.
Building a union for offshore workers
Our aim is to provide offshore workers with an organisation which is totally relevant to their needs. It will concentrate and campaign 100% on offshore issues, unlike existing unions, whose efforts offshore only represent a small propotion of their overall responsbilities. The only criteria we would set for membership is employment offshore in any sector. In particular we would hope to attract workers who would not previously have considered union membership.
It has been said before, but it is worth emphasising, that offshore workers in the UK are at a crossroads with regard to the possibilities of improving their conditions and increasing their input into the process of consultation on the future of the industry.
There are many issues, current and approaching, which will require that the workforce has effective representation. These include the review of Safety Representative and Safety Committee regulations, the forthcoming Offshore Safety Bill, European Health, Safety and Working Hours directives (with all the possibilities they hold for improved work rotas) and the big question of 1992 with fears about the introduction of cheap foreign labout.
Until now the trade unions (with the notable exception of MSF) have failed to provide even the most cursory of efforts at putting our case in the relevant arenas. All the movement in this area has been provided by the Offshore Information Centre and the OILC. This is a service which we will continue to provide and, indeed, improve on. We still have the friends, contacts and credibility to achieve results.
Our union is not being set up as a confrontational force to spread anarchy throughout the North Sea. Whilst industrial action can never be ruled out as a last resort, it has to be realised that as an official union we will be under the same legal constraints as others. The main thrust of our campaign should be force of membership and lobbying for legislative changes to force ballots for recognition on employers.
From moans and groans to organisation
Membership then is the key! We call on every offshore worker in the UK sector, regardless of status or sector, to take a logical step in self-help and join us! We understand that some may still hesitate, particularly our colleagues in the Drilling and Service sectors, which are predominantly anti-union.
To these workers we offer the same legal protection as any other unions, and this advice: remember that you have a legal right to join a trade union of your choice and to freedom of association. Any company, or supervisor, who threatens you or tries to tell you otherwise is infringing those rights and breaking the law. A company may tell you that it does not recognise a trade union but it cannot tell you that it will never do so. If we can succeed in having ballots imposed on employers, they may have to!
The challenge to all offshore workers is to transform their coffee shop moans and groans into support for an organisation that will take them seriously - OILC - the Offshore Workers' Union.
They will have to ask themselves if they are happy to continue as they are with no prospects of improvement - if they ever want to enjoy conditions similar to those of our Norwegian colleagues, or whether they will quietly accept losing their jobs with the introduction of cheap foreign labour.
The choice should be clear and we are confident that the workforce will vote with their feet and join with us in creating a formidable campaigning force.
We have everything to go for, new opportunities await and, as our Norwegian friends from OFS reminded us in a warm congratulatory telex on the day, "The future is ours".