In this interview, Neil Rothnie describes the surge of organisation among oil workers in the British section of the North Sea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The shock of the explosion on the Piper Alpha oil rig on 6 July 1988, in which 167 oil workers died, was a catalyst for rank-and-file organisation. Activists established the Oil Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), after the Piper Alpha disaster, to coordinate action by workers who were members of different trade unions.
The OILC sought to supercede rivalry among unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which it saw as an obstacle, and was one of the strongest workers’ organisations to emerge independently of the TUC-linked structures in the UK in recent decades. Neil Rothnie set up the workers’ newspaper Blowout, which was linked to the OILC and eventually became its formal mouthpiece. An archive of the first eight issues of this remarkable militant workers’ newspaper – from the period before it became constrained by union bureaucracy – is now available on People & Nature.
Neil Rothnie, 61, started work on the North Sea in the early 1970s, between spells at university, and again after graduation. He has worked as a catering steward, a roughneck and assistant derrikman and finally as drilling fluids engineer (a “mud man”, managing the fluids used in drilling oil wells), in both the British and Norwegian sectors of the North Sea, and in other oil fields around the world. He is a lifelong socialist, although – after a short spell in the Socialist Labour League and its successor the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, a Trotskyist group, in the 1970s – not a member of a particular group. He has been an active member of the National Union of Seamen and latterly the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union. He represented oil workers as a member of the RMT Council of Executives, after having served as the OILC Branch Secretary, after the independent OILC merged with RMT.
Gabriel Levy (GL). The Piper Alpha explosion cast a shadow over the entire oilfield and British society, and also gave an impetus to oil workers’ organisation. How do you remember those events?
Neil Rothnie (NR). Certainly, 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.
After Piper Alpha, the “Bear Facts” group put adverts in the Daily Record [Scotland’s largest circulation tabloid newspaper] and elsewhere, inviting people to come to a meeting to discuss the way forward after Piper Alpha.
As for my own union, the National Union of Seamen, it was a battle just to get them to address themselves to the issue of the North Sea. I was fighting in the branch, to try to get the NUS to turn themselves into the oil workers’ union.
The disaster was an absolute, utter shock. It was incredibly detrimental; 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. [There were 61 survivors.] I worked mostly on the semis – mobile drilling units that were doing exploration work, going round finding the fields – which is different work from what the construction/engineering workers round Ronnie were doing on the platforms. Mind you I was on leave from the Beryl B, a production platform, when the Piper went up.
[For activists] there was also a realisation that it was an opportunity: let’s not beat around the bush. Some guys on the North Sea had been wanting to do something [about organising the industry] since before Piper Alpha. By the time the OILC got started, I had fled the British sector of the North Sea and had gone to find work in the Norwegian sector. In the immediate aftermath of Piper I had been NRB’d from the Beryl B. [NRB, or Not Required Back, has become shorthand on the North Sea for the dismissal of a worker without a permanent contract]. I had tried to shut down the job when a rogue product used in the mud had seriously poisoned one worker. I’d ended up on the Sedneth 701 semi-submersible working for Shell on a high temperature-high pressure well, right next to the Ocean Odyssey – which had had a blowout that killed one man and resulted in half a dozen others having to jump into the sea where gas bubbled to the surface and burned. That was a “textbook evacuation”, according to a spokesman on TV for the operator Atlantic Richfield. On the 701 I had discovered that one of the lifeboats, recently OK’d by the Department of Transport had a great hole in the outer skin. This is just months after the guys on the Odyssey had had to take to the boats to escape the blowout, just months after Piper Alpha. I made sure I was in Norway before an article in the Observer exposed this – and me as their source. I always knew that the Norwegians were more advanced. They had better working conditions even then. And it had to be safer.
In the Norwegian sector, the atmosphere was very different, and it is different to this day. It is not run by fear in the way that the British sector is. The guys had been much better organised from the early days, and, as a result, the atmosphere from the start was much more conducive to discussion. The guys are not any more political or any more militant than those in the British sector, but the history is slightly different. When I got to Norway it still had a proper Social Democratic government and to this day it remains the fact that Norwegian workers are far better protected by regulation by a government that still needs their support. By the beginning of the 90s, the miners had been defeated here in the UK and the trade union bureaucracy that had isolated them, had pretty much collapsed under the attacks led by Thatcher. Successive UK governments behaved like they couldn’t give a damn about the offshore workers and that there real concern was that the oil companies be given carte blanche to do what they needed to keep the industry unorganised and the profits and revenues flowing.
There were very few women working offshore UK when I was there, and not too many even now I bet. When cabins were four- or even six-berth, and showers and toilets communal, there was “no room” for women. Even in Norway today there are relatively few women, and they are concentrated in catering – though there are usually a handful of female engineers scattered throughout the disciplines on all installation. … quite a few female mud engineers for example – maybe one in 20 in Norway. There are even some female drilling superintendents and Offshore Installation Managers, but virtually no women on the drill crews even now that these jobs are a lot less physical. I don’t know if even this is replicated in the UK sector. I doubt it.
Mind you, nowadays, even on the UK side most cabins will be two bunk with a night shift worker and day shift worker sharing and with toilet facilities en suite, so it is at least possible to accommodate women. On the Norwegian side, we never have two guys sleeping in the same cabin at the same time – but from mates in the British sector, I know this still happens sometimes. It’s a nightmare: you’d have to do it to understand. In the early 70s we slept four or even six to a cabin – yes, all at the same time.
GL. Please describe the process, post-Piper Alpha, that led to the formation of the OILC and the publication of Blowout.
NR. As I mentioned, the Norwegian sector, where I was working, is much more technological. The Norwegians have been leaders in mechanising the drilling industry. That was also true about the reporting: I went on to the [Norwegian] rig and the first thing they did was give me a computer, an Apple Mac, and said “you need to put your reports in on this, every day”. They gave me a day’s training on it. Once I started using it, I realised: “Hah! This machine is amazing! You can write stuff on this. It’s different from writing with a pen, because you can read stuff back as you go along, you can cut and paste.” The machine leads you on, in a way; the articles structure themselves.
I had a lot of stuff to write. I had been out in the North Sea for many years and I hated what was going on. The behaviour of the oil companies was disgraceful. I knew that, despite the fact that I had had little industrial experience before that. And that was deliberate [from the employers’ side] as well: they didn’t want guys with industrial experience. They had to have experienced workers on the construction and engineering side, and on the hook-ups [i.e. building and commissioning the platforms that were going to exploit the oilfields that had been found by the exploration rigs – the semi submersibles that Neil worked on] But on the drilling side, they didn’t. It was a new industry and they were going to have to train a new workforce anyway. And they definitely didn’t want anybody who might have had contact with blue-collar trade union traditions. But of course I had had connections [with the labour movement and socialist politics] through the Socialist Labour League and WRP. So I was angry, and I was interested in doing something … and there I was in Norway, sitting at a computer. (Maybe you’d have been fine to do stuff on a computer in the British sector … had there been any computers! But you would have been frightened that someone would have seen what you were writing and that you would have ended up getting kicked off the rig.)
Anyway, I went to one of the early mass meetings arranged by the OILC, and I said: “Why don’t you do a newspaper?” I remember it clearly. Everyone said yes, but the implication was: oh, this will never happen. Some people pooh-poohed it. No-one said “you’re off your nut”. So my brother and a friend of his got me some money – a few hundred pounds – and I wrote the articles offshore, put them on to three-and-a-half inch floppy disks, and took them to a printing bureau in Glasgow.
The first issue appeared exactly a year after the Piper Alpha disaster. What gave it its character was that I had two letters to the editor in it. One was from Bob Ballantine, a survivor who had been on the Piper Alpha. He was about the only guy I ever met on the North Sea who had a kind of political history: he had been in the Communist Party. He has since died – young. The only other letter was from Gavin Cleland, also dead now. He was an ex miner who by this time was living in Glasgow and whose son had died on the Piper Alpha. I got letters from them. I quite consciously went and forced them to write these letters – so they were commissioned, rather than spontaneous. And they went down well. So then the paper took off like a house on fire.
By the time the first edition of Blowout appeared., we were in dispute. There were days of action; strikes were beginning to happen. They weren’t spontaneous: they were called by the OILC. For Blowout to go out, with the headline “Remember Our Dead” on the front page, it struck a chord. 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.
Because the paper came out on the anniversary of the Piper Alpha, the next logical step was to bring one out on the anniversary of the Ocean Odyssey blowout. I wrote most of this edition on a Compaq laptop I found in a drawer in the mud lab on Exxon’s Saligi platform on the South China Sea off Malaysia – and with the technical help of a Malaysian guy on board who was quite sympathetic to the idea. And soon after that an edition was produced every month. We printed 15,000 one month. It pretty much reached every corner of the UK sector.
GL. It was the letters that seemed remarkable to me. Trade union newspapers published very few letters, and if they did, the subject matter and style were heavily circumscribed. But here was a paper that was full of letters from workers. What were they saying? What did they think or hope was going to come out of this?
NR. I don’t remember the content of all the letters. But it’s not really about the content. It’s about the fact that people could say whatever they wanted to say, and that the letters would be printed. One letter I remember was from a guy who was a Christian and had some sort of group, with a little logo with a peace dove. He probably sent it in thinking, “ah, they’ll never publish this”. But I made a point of publishing it, along with the logo – and I remember how he got back to me to say how pleased he was. It was for everybody to put in what they wanted.
GL. I remember there were letters about conditions and safety procedures. Perhaps health and safety was the biggest campaigning issue on the North Sea at that time.
NR. There was a great deal of chatter, before Piper Alpha went up, about how some places were particularly dangerous. They used to talk about the Thistle – they called it the “black pig” or something. And they used to say it was a really dangerous place. I had never been on any of the installations that were looked at in this way. But after the disaster, people said: well, we were right about the danger, we just go the place wrong.
Corporate trophy for 100 accident-free days on the Piper Alpha platform, presented to workers in 1987, a year before the disaster. Photo: Owen Logan, from the Oil Lives oral history project
But where I worked, we were young, completely untrained. We didn’t come from an industrial background. We didn’t know that what we were doing was absolutely crazy. And it was a real shock when Piper Alpha went up. But even then people did not see the danger they faced. There was no culture of health and safety. [So it was not just about health and safety.] … Don’t get me wrong, but in a sense we could say that Piper Alpha became an excuse to go in and fight the oil companies. What got the guys more than anything was that they were treated like shit. Not the fact that the workplace was unsafe. I doubt whether the majority had been nursing great doubts about safety. And even after Piper Alpha … you wouldn’t have been out there, it you seriously thought that there was a possibility that something like that would happen again, but what we did also know was the relentless attrition rate, the flow of small accidents. I knew guys who had been hurt, and I had been hurt: I had broken a bone in my foot, broken a bone in my hand, been knocked unconscious on the rig floor. That’s just my own individual experience. I’d been on rigs where people had died, either on the rigs themselves or on supply boats. But it was the anger about the way people were treated: the abuse of working relationships, the shouting and screaming, people getting run off the rigs.
People’s jobs could end in a moment. I remember the very first rig I worked on, in 1973. It was BP’s flagship the Sea Quest. I went out to it with a guy who worked as a caterer, a steward. He was an older guy, in his mid 30s. He was very excited: it was our first trip to an oil rig and it was very cutting edge then. He was really excited about coming home after his 14 days. We were all having a drink – you were allowed cans of beer on the rig at that time (one can a day officially). But he never came back. And he never came back because someone [in management] decided there was something dodgy about him; he just wasn’t right for them.
GL. So people were blacklisted?
NR. I wouldn’t even say blacklisted. His face just didn’t fit, as far as they were concerned. If you raised any issues, or challenged anything that was going on – well there was no question. You certainly would never come back. But my point is that even if you didn’t do anything like that, you were in danger.
GL. Who were these managers? What type of companies were they working for?
NR. I was (still am) in the drilling side. There, the drilling companies are the policemen. The oil companies ran the show in the sense that they paid the wages. But they let the drilling companies run the day to day show. And management – assistant drillers, drillers and toolpushers – were, to begin with, all from the Deep South of the USA. Literally. They had got used to treating “oil field trash” [oil workers] a certain way in America, and they were allowed to carry on with that in the British sector. In Norway, there was a big reaction to it. The guys organised and fought back.
GL. So the individual managers were American by nationality? BP or Shell or whoever would hire the rig and bring in the drilling contractors to do the work…
NR. There were some British drilling contractors too, and they were a bit more liberal. They came with the traditions of the British merchant navy, which are not very liberal, but are more liberal than the Americans. These managers bullied and browbeat people. And it was very difficult to organise against that. Once you were on the beach, how could you get back on to the job?
Guys were very vulnerable, and the unions were not responding to this. So, for example, when I first went offshore, I joined the Transport & General Workers Union (T&GWU) and I tried to get the guys on the rig (Sedco 135F) to join. Then we were working two weeks on, one week off. You went out on a Monday and came back on a Monday, so in reality it was more like fifteen days on and six days off. So the guys didn’t have time to go into the union office when they were back onshore. So I was getting their dues off them, and then going into the office and handing it over, getting them cards, like an unofficial dues-taker.
After a certain amount of time they [the union] stopped me doing this [with a stupid formality]. Obviously there had been collusion between the employers and the union. Nevertheless, guys joined. Eventually, after I was back on shore, some of the guys I had recruited into the T&GWU actually held a strike, on another rig. I think this was on the Sedco 135G. That was in around 1974 or 5. There were other things happening out there, though I didn’t hear about it at the time. I got to know one guy, Davy Robertson, who was involved in some sort of action on a Dixieland Field semi.
But in the main the unions did not offer guys any sort of protection, no leadership – none. In fact the very opposite. As the example I have given shows, if anyone made an attempt to do anything, they would slap it down.