Article 23rd April 2012
The Socialist spoke to Billy who is a member of the OILC/RMT oil workers union about his experiences of the oil industry, the importance of trade union organisation and the question of public ownership of the oil industry.
I started working offshore in 1988 as a roustabout – part of a drill crew on a drilling rig. It’s a tough, hard job in a harsh environment and can be very dangerous working with heavy equipment, pipe and the like made from heavy steel. High winds and rig movement and rolling pipe can be dangerous. We’re exposed to all the elements – there is no such thing as being rained off. Now I’m a crane operator working on a drilling rig off the West of Shetland. Our job is to test whether there is enough oil to make a full drilling operation “viable”
What changes have there been since 1988 ?
Today, unlike in the past, there has been an improvement in safety culture; attention to safety has improved to a degree. We had a lot of strikes, wildcat action, in the late 80’s to fight for union recognition, linked to safety.
A lot of people were blacklisted especially by some of the US multi-nationals and haven’t worked since.
It was the struggle of workers in the North Sea that led to the creation of the OILC which then later merged with the RMT.
Trade union organisation in the UK oil sector is not easy. It’s not a case of trade union officials being able to visit a workplace to recruit to the union. And there has been a history of anti-union corporations in the North Sea victimising trade unionists.
Communication is therefore key when issues come up. I’m a member of the OILC/RMT and we’re able to contact them by phone or email. “Enough is Enough” is the newspaper and “Blowout” is the union magazine which are also important.
Our union took a legal case for a 2 weeks on and 3 weeks off standard and spent hundreds of thousands of pounds taking it to court and lost. With the courts ruling in the interests of the big oil companies, claiming that our downtime can be used for holidays, which is a scandal.
You worked in Norway recently what were the differences there ?
I worked for the last wee while in the Norwegian sector and what a difference. Unlike in the UK sector you get your own room. We’re paid a night-shift allowance, for being a member of the fire team, for attending safety meetings and so on.
In the UK you can be two or even four to a room for two and three weeks at a time.
The rigs are hugely superior than in the UK sector. The Norwegian trade unions won the right to 2 weeks on and 4 weeks off agreement – on full pay. Whereas in the UK-sector its 3 and 3 for most of the drilling guys.
In terms of wages, by moving from Norway back to the UK sector I’ve lost £500 a month, even though I’m working for the same company. It’s a result of the agreements and control over wages and conditions won by the trade unions in Norway, which is a highly union organised sector.
What this drove home to me, with the independence referendum coming up, is that we must make a priority the nationalisation of the oil industry.
Norway is not a socialist country by any means but the nationalisation of the oil sector through Statoil, which is 66% owner by the Norwegian government, plus strong trade union organisation has been key to better wages and conditions.
If we won the Norwegian conditions of 2 and 4 how many jobs would that create? There is a load of young lads leaving the training and survival schools for the North Sea and they’re not getting take on. And some of these skills are transferable and they could be used for helping develop the renewable sectors as well.
What are the benefits of a strong trade union ?
Our rig have just come back from Norway, we have about 100 on the rig, and the guys I’m working with have seen first hand the benefits of a strong trade union and what can be achieved in terms of wages and working conditions.
The contrast as we moved back into the UK sector is showing the lads the difference. I’ve said look guys, how can you say being in a union makes no difference? Now we’re pushing to get everyone unionised on our rig.
Our Norwegian co-workers were astonished that some of the UK lads were not in a union - they couldn’t believe it.
They were arguing that they want Norwegian conditions for the international oil industry. The confidence of the workers in Norway was striking and this is because the stronger position the unions are in.
What is certain is that a strong trade union in the North Sea is vital as is public ownership of the oil and gas sector under workers control.
Then these resources could be used for society and not the profits of the multi-national corporations.