The North Sea 2. The OILC and the unions

The second part of an interview with Neil Rothnie about North Sea oil workers’organisation.

Submitted by wojtek on September 15, 2013

Gabriel Levy. When the OILC was set up, in the aftermath of the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, what was it aiming to do?

Neil Rothnie. Ronnie Macdonald had a vision of the OILC being a ginger group to force the unions to get their act together, to collaborate and to do what unions were supposed to do.

GL. What did other workers think? And what did you think?

NR. Well in some ways Ronnie was doing the thinking for everybody. What was I individually thinking? Well, I was a revolutionist. In terms of what we were actually trying to do [there and then], Blowout was about trying to give the guys a voice, about creating conditions where, if the guys had a medium for exchanging views and hearing news from other parts of the field, then they would have an opportunity to intervene in what was happening in their own lives. I was on shore at this point; I’d lost a job in Norway. I was sacked, but was defended by the Norwegian union NOPEF (now called IE). Eventually I was bought off with the money that would buy the Apple Mac that some of the early Blowouts were produced on). I had said to the activists that if they wanted Blowout as a regular paper, the best way would be if they paid me to do it, and they agreed. So that’s what I was doing.

I didn’t have a clear picture of where I wanted things to go. Ronnie’s view seemed OK to me, as far as it went: we were going to organise the offshore workers to fight back. Piper Alpha had demonstrated that we could not go on in the old way. That was finished. The deaths made that impossible.

GL. Were the oil workers’ wives and partners involved in any way?

NR. I always thought that if the wives were to see how their partners were treated offshore UK they’d be shocked – up in arms in defence of their men, or maybe even disgusted at the shit that their men were taking and demanding that they stand up against it. In the very early days I remember a good bit of hostility from both management and workers to the idea of women on board and some pretty crude nonsense when the occasional female did come out. I think some of the management found it difficult to be quite such utter “arseholes” in front of women. Certainly it would have been difficult for the “Deep South” bigots and racists common amongst the American bosses, at that time, to treat us like “tartan coolies” while maintaining a “Southern Gentleman” persona in front of women on the rig. And I think a lot of the guys were glad that there weren’t women around to witness the shit they took – the shouting and screaming and general bullying.

I tried to engage the wives of the offshore workers and encourage them to read and contribute to Blowout because I thought that if they knew about it, they would be less likely than their men to put up with the bullying and the lip service to safety, which, maybe less widespread than in the early days, is still there – by all accounts. I thought that, in some respects, women at home were more victimised than the men themselves by the “two on two off” schedules that were by this time common in the UK sector – and still are now. This has to be compared with Norway, where we went to “two on three off”, and it is now “two on four off”. This makes the Norwegian oilfield a lot more “women friendly”. Some women with young children at home can now work offshore Norway now.

Of course it was difficult to tell how many Blowouts were getting back home to the wives, but there were avid readers amongst women when I sold the paper round the bars in Aberdeen and at labour movement rallies around Scotland.

GL. Looking back, would you say that the OILC was a medium of self-organisation, of workers’ autonomous action?

NR. Yes, absolutely. But there were two things about it. The trade unions were so weak, so pathetic. On the one hand that restricted the development of resistance amongst workers offshore. On the other hand it was an open door. There was a great big gap where a proper organisation could build.

GL. And the OILC was, at the start, that organisation?

NR. Despite itself. The OILC tried hard to work officially inside the [trade union] system. We went to TUC conferences, we tried to intervene and to get the Inter-Union Offshore Oil Committee [a sub committee of the TUC representing seven affiliated unions in the offshore industry] to function. But it was impossible. So the OILC found itself becoming a separate organisation by default – despite what it was trying to do.

[Under TUC rules, unions are not allowed to compete for members. So in any new industry, including the North Sea, unions would try to agree on which of them would organise which type of workers, and engage in bureaucratic “turf wars”. And in reality, the unions organised very little) The OILC’s argument was that one united organisation was needed for the industry, and that the TUC and its procedures made this harder.]

GL. So the OILC didn’t set out to be autonomous from the unions?

NR. Not at all. And when it did take autonomous action, there was an immediate intervention by the Scottish TUC and by Charles Woolfson and some other academics who were close to the Communist Party. They’d come around the OILC and stayed close to it. At the time when the OILC had the opportunity to be different, to constitute itself as a bona fide expression of workers in a frontier industry with all sorts of potential, with huge economic clout – at that point Woolfson came in and wrote his book, and got around Ronnie and the guys. That was the way that Ronnie was collared [by the union bureaucracy].

Ronnie had been a merchant seaman, a very young seaman affected by the big dispute of the mid 1960s. [The then prime minister] Harold Wilson had said it was orchestrated by a “closely knit group of politically motivated men”. Ronnie was a kid at that time, not very active in the strike I don’t think – but there, and inspired by it. He’d never been in the Labour Party or the Communist Party. He was a guy with an industrial background who had been there at an important political moment [in the history of the seafarer’s union]. He was clever and a good speaker. But he had no vision outside the established trade union movement.

GL. So the OILC was trying to become more closely integrated with the trade union movement, but being rejected because it was not following the standard trade union way of doing things. And what was happening among oil workers themselves?

NR. On the big platforms where the OILC was strongly organised, the guys did do stuff. [In some cases] they occupied the rigs. They made decisions. There was strong leadership from Ronnie. It was his policy to occupy, and I thought that that was very progressive.

GL. How did these occupations work? Occupying an oil rig must be quite a challenge.

NR. The guys just refused to go off. They were urged by Ronnie Macdonald, by the OILC, to occupy. They just sat in, on the rig. They were not working. I was not closely involved; I would see them when they came onshore. But many of these actions could not last that long. A lot of the guys were rock solid, were ready to go on strike to win improvements. They would go on strike. They would be asked to sit in and occupy the rig, and they would do that. And then they would allow themselves to be sent ashore. Their lives were not out there; their wives did not want them to be out there – this was post Piper Alpha, don’t forget, and people worried that these places were going to blow up. And if you are away from your family, how long are you going to occupy an oil rig anyway?

GL. What was the response from the oil companies and the contractors?

NR. There was a massive attack – a political and legal attack – on the OILC. They had to take out injunctions and all sorts of things to try and get these guys off these [occupied] rigs. There were court cases and all the rest of it. The men did amazing things.

GL. And did industrial relations on the North Sea change as a result? Did the management bullies from the American South pull back?

NR. As a result of the industrial action, the oil companies threw money at the problem. Guys found themselves getting huge wage increases. They were bought off, in a sense. And that happened partly because there wasn’t a coherent strategy. The OILC was not devoid of strategy – it adopted the position that we needed a Continental Shelf Agreement, covering the entire British sector of the North Sea, so that everybody knew what the wages were – but the strategy was not coherent.

The trade union bureaucracy, which played a filthy game during and after the 1989 wave of disputes, played an especially filthy game before then. They had had a Hook-Up Agreement. This meant that before the platforms came into production [while they were being built, or “hooked up”], there were agreements on what wages were to be paid, a rate for the job, disciplinary

Cartoon from Nok-Er-Nok, the OILC paper, no. 1 (2008)

procedures and a role for the unions. It was a classic reformist trade union arrangement. But the agreement was that, as soon as platforms went into production, the provisions no longer applied. The agreement stopped. So at the point where the money started flowing, the oil companies had a situation where there was no trade union intervention whatsoever. To have allowed that was just criminal.

After the strikes and occupations, something like 500 construction and engineering workers, loyal to the OILC and their unions, were blacklisted and most of them never got back offshore. They spent varying periods of unemployed. They were abandoned by the official trade union movement. And if there’s been no major fightback since then, you don’t have to look much further than this to understand why.

GL. So the OILC wanted an agreement that would cover all workers at all stages of the process.

NR. Yes. We wanted to organise across the board. We wanted it tied up, the way that unions did in the big companies onshore. That was the model. But the OILC was incapable of achieving it. We would have needed not only to set up an independent organisation but to break from the methods of the official trade union movement. Not that I knew how this could be done.

GL. So the OILC never achieved an overall agreement?

NR. No, nothing.

GL. And did the management culture change?

NR. Very slowly. The worst excesses were modified through time. But it’s still bad. It’s a while since I’ve worked in the British sector, but a couple of years ago, when I did go back for a two week trip, it was still the same old shit: the fear, guys having to fight to tell the truth about health and safety. It’s a very strong contrast with the Norwegian sector, where guys are strongly organised and people, in the main, are able to tell the truth.

GL. So to sum up. There was a surge of activity after Piper Alpha: the formation of the OILC, a series of strikes and occupations, and then this process of the unions trying to bring the OILC into the fold.

NR. It became obvious that the OILC was going to have to go it alone, to set up as a union. [Up to this point, the OILC had been a cross-union, rank-and-file organisation. Its members and supporters were at the same time members of various TUC-affiliated unions.] That was the point at which Woolfson became very active. He had done a great deal of research and published a book, Paying for the Piper, about the Piper Alpha disaster. On that basis he started to attend our meetings week in week out and become closely involved; this gave him and his colleagues access to Ronnie and the other OILC members.

One of the issues of Blowout was going to come out, with material from quite a few of the guys – one of the guys who worked on the semis, and from Ronnie, among others – that was challenging the way that we were sliding towards becoming some sort of ersatz TUC union. This issue of the paper was going to say: look, we are going to have to go it alone [as an independent union]. It was going to ask the question: what sort of organisation are we going to have? I knew this was controversial. [This intensified] a battle to take control of the paper. I had said, look, if you want the paper, you’ll have to accept the way that I’m editing it. And they were saying, well is it an OILC paper or not?

I had already been physically threatened by some neanderthal – a trade union loyalist who thought I was too radical. He was ignorant. But he instinctively knew that where I was coming from was dangerous to his idea of trade union loyalism. I was nervous. And I let a couple of guys know what I was intending to do [i.e. to publish the discussion material on what type of organisation was needed]. They told Ronnie. And he took action. [Payment for publication of the paper was delayed.] Then this guy, a friend of Woolfson’s, who had been a printer, got onto the [trade unionists at] the printers where Blowout was printed, in Greenock, and said: don’t print it. And that issue was not printed. Eventually it came out with a blank page with a statement. I sort of surrendered. I wasn’t able to go any further with it at that time. There wasn’t any sort of organisation around Blowout that could have challenged Ronnie and the OILC. (See Footnote below for more on this dispute.)

[Despite the OILC’s readiness to work together with the TUC-affiliated unions, they showed no interest in compromising with it. So in 1991, despite its initial hesitation, the OILC registered itself as a union, outside the TUC. It continued to organise as a minority, militant force in the North Sea. It campaigned on health and safety issues and remained critical of the TUC’s Inter-Union Offshore Oil Committee and the “partnership agreements” – better described as sweetheart agreements – frequently signed between TUC-affiliated unions and companies. During the 2000s, the OILC drew closer to the RMT (into which the old seafarers’ union had merged in 1990). In 2008 the OILC merged into the RMT.]

Footnote. Few episodes in the early history of the OILC have lived longer, or more painfully, in participants’ memories than this battle over the demand for a single offshore union, supported by Blowout under Neil Rothnie’s editorship. It came to a head in February 1991 over issue no. 15 of Blowout, in which Rothnie planned to call for a referendum of the paper’s readers on setting up a single (implicitly non-TUC) union. Ronnie McDonald and other members of the OILC’s Standing Committee stopped the issue appearing as submitted, by delaying a regular payment of £2000 per month, made to Rothnie by the OILC to cover his own wage and the publication costs of Blowout. The part of the payment to cover his wages was restored shortly afterwards, according to a book about the OILC, and the issue of Blowout appeared with the contentious material removed. Shortly afterwards, Rothnie relinquished the editorship of Blowout and went back to working offshore.

Charles Woolfson, John Foster and Matthias Beck wrote in Paying for the Piper that the dispute came to a head over “editorial control”. After a meeting at which Rothnie refused to remove the material supporting a single offshore union, they wrote, “events were to move rapidly. Despite considerable efforts on the part of McDonald, exchanges with Rothnie indicated he would not reconsider his position. Faced with this, McDonald took the decision to ‘freeze’ the monthly £2000 cheque covering Rothnie’s wages and the printing costs of the Blowout, and delayed the paper’s publication. An emergency [meeting of the OILC] Standing Committee subsequently endorsed this decision. Rothnie’s wages were reinstated after two days, while the emergency Standing Committee drafted a policy decision indicated its unanimous position of support for McDonald. [That committee’s position was that] either the paper served as a weapon in the armoury of the OILC’s struggle or it must go its own way. The contentious single-union referendum must be withdrawn.”

Woolfson and his colleagues, who branded Rothnie’s politics “far-Left” and accused him of trying to “derail” discussion, further recorded: “Blowout’s publication went ahead with the offending referendum and supporting editorial removed. In its place was left a ‘blank page’ in the middle of which was reproduced a highlighted facsimile of the policy decision of OILC Standing Committee.” Beneath that was “a disclaimer referring readers to another ‘discussion contribution’ calling for a single offshore union, printed on the facing page” (pp. 447-448).

Rothnie’s recollection is that, although both his wages and the printing costs “did eventually get paid”, McDonald’s initial decision to “freeze” payment, and the resulting delay, had a shattering effect on him and his partner. They had three young children.

“Ronnie stopped the £2000 that I got from the OILC to produce the paper. I’ve been angry about it ever since”, he said. “There was no formal agreement with OILC about how the money was broken down, but my position at the time was that £1000 was for me and £1000 was to present the paper (published and printed) to the OILC in Aberdeen.”

McDonald has readily answered my questions about the dispute. He is adamant that it was not about money, but about the direction in which the OILC would go. He has told me by email that “we did care about the family he [Rothnie] had to support” and therefore continued to pay his wage. McDonald says his intention was to withhold OILC support for printing a “competing policy forum”.

Woolfson and his co-authors recorded that there was a delay in the payment of Rothnie’s wages, and that the decision to reinstate them was taken within two days. Implementation could have taken longer. And those two days would not have been a happy time in Rothnie’s home, and are imprinted on his memory.

According to Woolfson, Foster and Beck, the OILC Standing Committee’s priority during this incident was to stop a referendum that would ask North Sea oil workers what they thought about the proposal for a single union. For Rothnie the priority was to build a new workers’ organisation that had the confidence to allow its members to express their views.

Note added by Gabriel Levy, August 2013.