The decision of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) to form itself into a new union has brought forth predictable cries of condemnation from predictable sources.
Frank Doran, the Labour Party's 'spokesman on Oil and Gas', called the decision "damaging to the cause of workers offshore"; Jimmy Airlie of the AEU called it "foolish and tragic"; while Alex Ferry, General Secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) called upon offshore workers to put their faith in the "existing unions".
All of which is a bit rich, given that OILC has been attempting to work with the "existing unions" (and, indeed, to overcome their sectional rivalries) ever since 1988 - only to be stabbed in the back this summer when the AEU, EETPU and GMB signed another hated 'hook-up' agreement, involving automatic derecognition at a date determined by the oil companies.
The final straw was the refusal of the AEU and EETPU to even attend meetings for a united offshore union federation at this year's TUC. Instead, the TUC unions proposed a toothless sub-committee of the CSEU, from which OILC would be excluded.
OILC's leading figures (notably Ronnie MacDonald) had been resisting rank and file demands for a new offshore union and pinning their hopes on the creation of an Offshore Federation with executive power over its constituent unions. The 'hook-up' sell-out, the sectarianism of the AEU and EETPU, and the failure of the other unions (notably the TGWU, MSF and RMT) to come up with any worthwhile proposals, made the creation of a new union inevitable.
Anyone who has doubts about the wisdom of OILC's decision should read the document they prepared for this year's TUC, The Crisis in Offshore Trade Unionism: this is a closely-argued critique of the existing unions' failure to organise effectively and it puts forward eminently sensible proposals for a campaign for an all-inclusive offshore industry agreement. In particular, the authors propose making use of the Cullen Report (into the causes of the Piper Alpha disaster) to give the unions a toe-hold in the health and safety process:
"Specifically, he [Cullen] laid down two conditions which the unions must fulfill if they are to play a part in the safety process: (1) the trade unions should achieve recognition in relation to a substantial aspect of labour relations; (2) that the union should have substantial membership on the installation in question. Those two conditions - recognition and membership on the installation - can only be achieved if the unions pool their resources in the kind of Offshore Federation which the OILC is calling for ..."
Given the abject failure of the existing unions to seize what OILC describes as the "rather slender life-line" presented by Cullen, the new union will be concentrating upon health and safety as the first step in the fight for recognition.
All in all, the OILC 'split' is the logical, responsible, and all-but-inevitable response to the failures and betrayals of the existing unions offshore. OILC are not really 'splitters' at all: out of a total offshore workforce of 36,000, the TUC unions can claim only 6,000 members, most of whom already look to OILC for leadership.
The attacks on OILC from people like Airlie and Ferry were to be expected. What is strange, however, is the response of much of the 'left' - including many of those who rushed to support the ill-advised and counter-productive EPIU split from the EETPU. The Morning Star, for instance, pontificated about how "at this time, when the unity of the TUC is under severe attack ... the establishment of a new union outside the TUC can only make things worse and play into the hands of the extreme right."
But then, the leaders of the EPIU split were supporters of the Morning Star, whereas the leaders of OILC just want an effective, united organisation in their industry.