Worker Unrest in The Oil Industry

By Shaun Morris, Glasgow Marxists

Oil and gas workers held limited strikes in July and August of 2018, with their dispute centring on changes to rotas, pay and other conditions. At the Elgin, Dunbar and Alwyn off-shore platforms operated by Total, workers downed tools for 12 and 24-hour strikes.

Total wished to change their employee’s contracts to a three-weeks-on, three-weeks-off rota, increasing the time workers spend off-shore, away from their families. Unite the Union highlighted the fact that this change would increase the likelihood of accidents and ill-health, while the RMT discovered other changes to the contract would result in pay cuts of up to 30% and many other benefits, such as travel allowances, being cut.

While involving relatively few workers, these strikes reveal a little of what is going on beneath the surface.

The highly-skilled and personally disruptive nature of working on off-shore platforms, as well as strong unions, traditionally meant workers were well-paid and privileged compared to similar production jobs. A job working in oil and gas in Aberdeen or elsewhere would be considered professional and secure, but still within reach of skilled workers. The generally conservative attitude to industrial relations that reigned in these sorts of industries was cast aside last year as the workers demanded action, going on strike for the first time in 30 years.

For now, the strikes have been suspended while the Trade Unions are in talks with the Offshore Contractors Association (OCA).

Planned strikes at the Equinor Mariner platform, southeast of Shetland, were avoided after a last-minute improved pay offer. Equinor – formerly Statoil – is the state-owned oil and gas producer of Norway. Along with the quelling unrest in Scotland, Norway has seen similar industrial disputes.

Though action was also limited, the Norwegian workers at the Shell-operated Knarr oil field held the largest strike in the industry since 2012. As the strike threatened to encompass a wider layer of workers, the employers’ association quickly entered negotiations, offering concessions on pay and pensions.

Norwegian workers are fighting their employers’ attempts to restructure workers into skilled and unskilled jobs, with wide pay differentials between them. As well as dividing the workers along these lines, they want to offer poorer pay and conditions to workers just entering the industry.

This discrimination between young and old workers takes place at a time when many are predicting a “great crew change” in the oil production workforce, as older, more experienced workers retire and a new generation is brought in. It is being used as an opportunity for the employers to erode pay and conditions.

As well as these long-term developments, oil workers are particularly subject to the short-term fluctuations in the oil market. 2018 was a poor year for the price of oil, with many companies tightening their budgets and thinking about long-term survival. Workers are naturally hit first by any cuts, with the indomitable “market” being blamed. In reality the global oil market is dominated by the oil-producing countries of OPEC, who closely determine the price for optimal profitability.

Outside the oil industry, the growing potential for industrial unrest can be seen all across Scotland as workers begin to confront the erosion of their living standards by capitalist austerity. Last year’s historic strike by thousands of female Glasgow City Council workers and the sympathy action from both teachers – who may themselves go on strike in 2019 – and bin men showed that feelings of class solidarity lie just below the surface of society. This feeling is international, as workers in all countries see how capitalist crisis and austerity is eroding their living standards.

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