OILC’s 30-year cam­paign to make sec­tor safer

● Group formed in wake of series of North Sea tragedies

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - BUSINESS - BY AL­LIS­TER THOMAS

A series of ac­ci­dents and fa­tal events in the North Sea were cat­a­lysts for the for­ma­tion of the Off­shore In­dus­try Li­ai­son Com­mit­tee (OILC) 30 years ago.

In the months pre­ced­ing it, 167 men lost their lives in the Piper Al­pha dis­as­ter – an in­ci­dent which still re­ver­ber­ates through the sec­tor to this day.

Just 24 hours prior to Piper was a gas ex­plo­sion on the Brent Al­pha plat­form, and two months fol­low­ing it was a fa­tal gas blowout on the Ocean Odyssey rig which cost the life of a 25-year-old man.

Then on New Year’s Day 1989 there was an­other gas ex­plo­sion, this time on the Brent Delta plat­form.

All of these in­ci­dents as a col­lec­tive led to the for­ma­tion of OILC in 1989 – a group to bring unions to­gether to im­prove health and safety stan­dards in the in­dus­try and would be­come a union it­self some years later.

Many of those who would come to form its mem­ber­ship were in­volved in protests in Aberdeen early in 1989 out­side the in­quiry cen­tre into Piper Al­pha.

They brought ban­ners urg­ing the gov­ern­ment to “bring the men up now” for the 30 bod­ies that had not been – and never were – re­cov­ered from the North Sea.

The OILC was es­tab­lished on July 6 1989 with thou­sands of work­ers down­ing tools to mark the first an­niver­sary of the dis­as­ter with a series of un­of­fi­cial strikes across the North Sea.

Twenty years later the group would be merged into the RMT union as its ded­i­cated off­shore branch.

Re­gional of­fi­cer Jake Mol­loy, who was in­volved in those first sit­tings for OILC, re­flected on the first 30 years.

He said: “The ob­jec­tive then was to bring about union col­lab­o­ra­tion – it was never the in­ten­tion to cre­ate a trade union – it was to try to bring the trade unions to a sin­gle ta­ble and work to­gether and to try and im­prove health and safety stan­dards.

“It was the year af­ter Piper, the first an­niver­sary on July 6 1989 that we stopped work in recog­ni­tion of the first an­niver­sary.

“Sub­se­quently, we started stop­ping work and sit­ting in for two days, then go­ing to work for a cou­ple days, and then stop­ping work again.

“That con­tin­ued through the sum­mer of 1989 and that was when OILC, the Off­shore In­dus­try Li­ai­son Com­mit­tee, was born.”

The group’s logo is sim­i­lar to and inspired by Sol­i­darnosc – the trade union led by for­mer pres­i­dent Lech Walesa which playd a ma­jor role in ending com­mu­nist rule in Poland.

Mar­garet Thatcher sup­ported the move­ment in Poland as it op­posed com­mu­nism, so “that was why we came up with the OILC logo to fit with the Sol­i­darnosc move­ment”, Mr Mol­loy said.

Still in the wake of the 1986 oil price crash, work­ers had also been gal­vanised into action over health and safety as well as cuts to wages and con­di­tions.

Mr Mol­loy said: “There was a whole cul­mi­na­tion of events which led to the com­plete stop­page of work in 1990 and then hun­dreds – I think it was 700 – ended up get­ting black­listed and never worked off­shore again.”

OILC pro­duced a video to mark the first 30 years, ded­i­cated to the work­ers “who put their liveli­hoods on the line in pur­suit of fair­ness, jus­tice and a safer work­place”.

Writ­ing for En­ergy Voice in 2015, OILC founder Ron­nie McDon­ald de­scribed Piper Al­pha as a wake-up call for the North Sea.

He added: “The off­shore work­ers’ in­sur­rec­tion over an 18-month pe­riod to late 1990 re­fo­cused minds of op­er­a­tors and em­ploy­ers and led to re­in­state­ment of our con­fis­cated pay and con­di­tions, plus some ex­tra.

“The main fo­cus of the in­dus­trial action wasn’t pay at all. We be­lieved that only united trade unions could be ca­pa­ble of pro­tect­ing us against a re­peat of the bad treat­ment of the pre­vi­ous decade.”

In 2008, OILC merged into RMT with more than 2,500 off­shore mem­bers which has to­day swelled to around 5,000 mem­bers, en­com­pass­ing a wider scope of “en­ergy” ac­tiv­i­ties.

The branch has mem­bers from a range of groups in­clud­ing con­trac­tors, off­shore

“The ob­jec­tive then was to bring about union col­lab­o­ra­tion”

cater­ers, divers, drilling staff and oth­ers. In re­cent years, RMT Off­shore has been vo­cal around the is­sue of off­shore ro­tas – fight­ing for a stan­dard­ised rota of two weeks on, three weeks off (2:3).

It has been de­scribed as one of the top con­cerns of the work­force, with some op­er­a­tors mov­ing to 3:3 amid the last oil down­turn to cut costs.

Unions have con­demned the move, with warn­ings it could have im­pli­ca­tions for safety and men­tal health.

RMT Off­shore has also been seen in re­cent years sup­port­ing fam­i­lies of victims of a series of heli­copter crashes in the North Sea. A to­tal of 33 peo­ple have lost their lives in crashes since 2009 in the now grounded Su­per Puma model of heli­copter in the sec­tor.

A fa­tal ac­ci­dent in­quiry is be­ing pre­pared into one of those in­ci­dents which took place off Sum­burgh in 2013.

Mr Mol­loy said the union will con­tinue to play an im­por­tant role in off­shore safety while ac­knowl­edg­ing the work of those who helped set up OILC three decades ago.

He added: “I think we need to ac­knowl­edge what those guys did back then.

“They had a ma­jor involvemen­t in shap­ing the reg­u­la­tory struc­ture that we have to­day and they will con­tinue to have in­put into that.”

The OILC’s logo was inspired by the Sol­i­darnosc (Sol­i­dar­ity) trade union move­ment in Poland in the 1980s

VOICE: A march call­ing for the bod­ies of the victims of the Piper Al­pha dis­as­ter to be re­cov­ered from the North Sea

The OILC has led the fight to im­prove safety in the off­shore in­dus­try and, right, re­gional of­fi­cer Jake Mol­loy

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