Thatcher’s Britain : 1989 : A group of what might today be called precarious workers in a new industry take on a range of contractors and anti-union multinationals in scattered workplaces and build a rank and file led union. They also produced a rank & file paper, “Blowout” by and for workers across the rigs, whose print run of 15,000 easily rivals the Left’s papers today. The union then leads thousands striking, occupying their workplaces and taking on mainly American anti-union giants. Finally, they had to decide how to deal with the obstructive attitude of their union leadership, which eventually led to OILC organising as a “breakaway” union outside the TUC.
With the current interest in pop-up unions and the history of other so called “breakaway” unions, it seems like now would be a good time to revisit the history of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee, or OILC.
Unions had made unsuccessful moves to organise North Sea workers in the early 1970s. But according to Gregor Gall, one of the few pro-worker accounts of the industry, “companies could resist the requirements of minimum employment and health and safety legislation, while increased revenues allowed discontent to be ameliorated by increasing wages and improving conditions”. These companies, mainly US based were hostile to unions. Many practical issues make organising difficult, such as a workforce scattered across 100 different rigs with multiple of skills and trades, all working for a range of subcontractors and workers often moving individually between rigs and contractors. On top of that, employers would simply declare that a militant was “Not Required Back”, ensuring they couldn’t organise on the rigs again.
Piper Alpha disaster changes everything
Britain’s biggest industrial disaster outside mining saw 167 workers die after a horrific explosion and fire. While there’d been terrible accidents and deaths before , the scale of this changed everything.
Neil Rothnie, OILC branch secretary at the time, explains the horror and its effect on the survivors :
“The disaster was an absolute, utter shock…… it scared the shit out of everybody. Looking back, I think I was myself slightly mentally ill around that period. The guys who were closer to it than me, men who always worked on the production platforms, they must have been affected even worse. Many of the guys who were on the Piper itself never fully recovered.”
The hell those caught up in the disaster went through is rarely recorded, though 70% survivors suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. As far as i know, there’s no BBC drama-doc; not even Radio 4 Afternoon Play; despite the memorials in Aberdeen it seems there is no collective memory across Britain, or at least outside Scotland; not even much in the left press 25 years on. The “play” linked below gives an indication of what the men on Piper Alpha went through that day.
If Not Now, When? Organising the Rank & File
After Piper Alpha, those wishing to improve health & safety and build union organisation must have thought “If not now, when?”
Some workers had previous union experience – the supposedly strike-bound days of 1970s Britain was much more a part of living memory than today. Others had worked in the Norwegian oilfields which had a much better reputation for both safety and working conditions. And a few key people had some experience of left politics, both “Trotskyism” and the Communist Party.
But of course, as anyone trying to organise “precarious” workers today will testify, there were still many obstacles to unionising. Ronnie McDonald (!!), first OILC chair, explained at the time how regular mass meetings, few bureaucratic rules, an oil workers paper, flexible tactics including occupations as well as strikes, and solidarity were key to successful action.
“Planning has been key to these strikes. Obviously the very nature of the business is that the men are isolated out there on plaftorms; then they come ashore, and scatter to the four winds.
So that’s the problem we had to tackle and we did that by regular mass meetings throughout the country with a growing schedule over the winter: Glasgow, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Aberdeen, Dundee, occasionally in Liverpool. But the meetings have been the key.
Then we had to look at the legal situation and put together a set of tactics that would be effective and sustainable. Hence the offshore sit-in. And there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s delivered. The tactics are sound and effective…………
We’ve no constitution and no rule book. We’ve no membership rule. The OILC standing committee is made up of the offshore workers who want to progress this fight and are committed to actually doing something practical. Some are shop stewards, some are spokesmen, some are not, but they are all active. We’ve a completely ad hoc organisation and have no bureaucracy – it’s as simple as that.
Communications during the strike are very important. A member of the committee created the Blow Out newspaper, and I think that’s one of the most significant things to come out of this struggle.
We issue hand-outs and information to keep the men informed of what we’re doing.
We get a lot of harassment from management. SEDCO, for instance, have banned our publications on their rigs.
We’ve had support from other workers: token industrial action from men at Davey of Dundee, St Fergus gas terminal, the lads in two major contracts on the Clyde at Coulport and Faslane. We’ve had faxes of support expressing solidarity from Norway, Sweden, Holland, Trinidad. It’s been very, very encouraging.
The local councillors, trades council and MPs should be commended on their support.
The purpose of this dispute is to deal the official union a hand at the table and we feel that we’ve come pretty far down that road and have given them a bargaining position. And there comes a time when we will have to hand the baton over to them.
But there’s no way the OILC will ever be out of the frame. We are, after all, the organised rank and file offshore from members of all the unions. So we can make sure all our demands are met.
The importance of The Paper
Those who took part in the first wave of strikes and occupations testify to the importance of “Blowout”, a paper written and produced by oil workers. It fulfilled the role of scaffolding to the building of union organisation in a similar way to the SWP talking about Socialist Worker.
Thousands were distributed, sometimes clandestinely, across the North Sea platforms by the workers themselves, who were also encouraged to contribute to their paper
Neil Rothnie again:
“Piper Alpha was the inspiration for Blowout. It was the failure of the trade unions that prompted Blowout and created the need for the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC). Ronnie Macdonald [the first chairman of the OILC] had been a shop steward in the oil rig construction yard in Ardesier, and then he was active offshore. When the Piper Alpha went up, he put advertisements in the newspapers [about starting up workers’ organisation]. He had a group around him: they organised round a pamphlet called “Bear Facts”. I think they were mainly members of the engineers’ union [then named the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW)]. As far as I remember, they weren’t succeeding in getting the AUEW to do anything. The unions were in total disarray.”
“No-one had gone out and spoken to guys before, made an attempt to give an identity, a voice, to the offshore workers. So then there were a lot of copies getting printed and going out. It was printed tabloid size, but it was also getting copied in A4 size and passed around on the rigs. The OILC had an office by this time; they took the paper and copied it and passed it out in large numbers. It caught on rapidly.”
Of course, before the internet, a paper like this was the only way to share information. Today, there are countless ways workers can share and discuss information.(The UK construction workers site, also called Bear Facts,does precisely this, and its forums have been crucial to unofficial strike organising too, such as during the Oil Refinery/construction workers strikes in 2009 ). But as any left wing paper seller will testify, a paper sold by living people who you can talk with and a paper you can write for and pass on to people you work with is much more likely to lead to stronger relationships than a hyperlink. (Hyperlink to the first year’s “Blowout” here on pdf)
So, what happened, and what can we learn?
While the OILC never managed to win an industry wide “Continental Shelf Agreement” whereby the union would openly negotiate all wages and conditions, there were improvements following the strikes and sit-ins. At first, “the oil companies threw money at the problem. Guys found themselves getting huge wage increases. They were bought off, in a sense.” says Neil. And the “worst excesses” of management culture “were modified through time”.
The OILC’s relationship with existing unions was complex, to say the least. The existing unions covering oil workers like the engineer’s AEEU and the seamen’s NUS felt threatened by the new force and were unhelpful at best. And while the OILC leaders seemed to see OILC as a temporary coordinating committee aiming to encourage dual membership of OILC and other relevant unions, the hostility of the bureaucracy (and some revolutionaries) to the dreaded “breakaway unionism” meant that by 1991 it had little choice but to register as an independent trade union, outside the TUC.
Twenty Five years on, the OILC is part of the RMT, still fighting for worker’s rights in the North Sea. Despite the problems of organising, hopefully the story of the OILC can be an inspiration for anyone trying to “organise the unorganised”, and for those organising against sectionalism.
While there is little on the web about the OILC’s history (where’s the Socialist Worker pamphlet, ISJ article etc), there is an excellent article on “People and Nature” including the interviews with the militants I’ve quoted here, as well as a much more detailed history from a pro-union perspective.
Most of the UK left’s paper’s from this time are not on line, but the AWL have had enough spare time to put theirs up.Their site here contains some useful interviews with OILC activists.