The offshore unions – what is to be done

James Tiberius Furie on the Facebook page “The OCG is for me! (Unofficial page)” raises the issue that needs to be confronted if there is going to be any (half human) future for UK offshore workers.

He says;

“A lot of offshore workers avoid joining a union then complain it doesn’t represent them and won’t join because of that or look for various other excuses too, Just one of many Poor ways of justifying why we Are in the mass we Are to themselves , join and get those around you to join then ensure your voices are heard. Employers get their own way because you don’t stand up to them.”

Imagine what an active union membership could do to employers and Unions alike if they would Just join”.

Point taken James!

No doubt loads of guys who are not in a union are making excuses to justify why they’re not.  But can you honestly urge these guys to join an offshore union?  And which one would we tell them to join?   I certainly couldn’t, and I spent 5 years as OILC Branch Secretary of RMT urging workers to join a union, to the exclusion of most nearly everything else in my life. More fool me!  And remember OILC are not contaminated by association with this OCA shite. I’m not telling any member to leave his/her union, maybe with a lifetime of dedicated intervention they might turn it round into something useful.

What would all these guys stand to gain from joining a union in the very unlikely event that they all do?  What would the unions “negotiate” for them?  Two on three off?   A wage rise?  And what would they have to do to get this?  And what price would they have to pay?  Their job?  Or would the unions protect them and stop the employers digging out the very best like they did even after the magnificent strikes in ’89 and ’90? 

The one thing that the guys on our Facebook page say, loud and clear, is that the OCA unions are “at it”.  They signed sweetheart deals that denied offshore workers their human right to choose which union should represent them.  And if that’s not enough they’ve been fucking useless and everyone including their own offshore members know it. If an official has turned up and argued your case for you when the company has been trying to screw you, you’ve had the very best the unions have to offer.  And it’s not enough.  Are the unions going to lead a strike for anything?  And then protect their members who get dug out?

The offshore unions have not solved one single problem faced by the offshore workers in a history that goes back nearly half a century.  In fact they’re part of the problem.  And maybe you can say that the reason the unions are useless is because the guys don’t have “a spine” but it’s a lot more complicated than that.

There’s only one culture offshore.  And that’s the culture of greed and bullying and arse licking and it has seeped down from the very top.  From big oil.  There are individuals who stand out against it.  Most of them on “The OCG is for me (Unofficial page)” I’d bet.  But if there was going to be an alternative culture (like there is offshore Norway) the unions would have had to have shown willing to fight right from the start.  And they didn’t.  From the very earliest days, in the heyday of the unions, the bureaucrats took the easy route of doing deals and making sure there was an “appearance” of a trade union so they could keep their positions – and no doubt their sandwiches and beer.  And let’s be honest.  The employers were “clever”.  They paid above the going rate.  Not rocket science!  But effective!

And that “culture” has contaminated a lot of guys.  How else could it have been?  If you don’t think you’re part of a union movement that has an alternative vision for the North Sea, and that can protect itself and its members, you do what’s necessary to keep the wages coming in and feed the family.  And the rest you rationalise away.  And eventually you’re sucked in.  And to preserve your self respect you begin to actually believe the shit that you’re forced to say you believe in, in front of bullying management who sit at your table in the mess room and pretend they’re workers too. 

So is that it? Are we fucked before we start?  I don’t think so!  But if there is going to be any challenge to the prevailing culture in an  industry that is hounding the workers in a race to the bottom, it won’t come from the OCA signatory unions.  And given that the RMT collaborate with UNITE and GMB in the OCG, and don’t seem to have had much civilising effect on them, it doesn’t look as though it’ll come from them either.  If change comes from anywhere it’ll come from the guys on the OCG is for Me (Unofficial page), and despite the unions.

But there is another “elephant” in this particular room.  And it is of a completely different quality to the “terms and conditions” and “travel payments” and even “3 and 3 schedules” or whatever.  Because none of these things is likely to mobilise a workforce that has been forced to eat shit for years.   But there is one issue which just has to.

And this is why this website exists at all. And its not a choice but an existential necessity. If we don’t deal with it some of us might just cease to “exist”.

The Elgin blowout demonstrates to anyone who wants to open their eyes and look at it, that in our industry it is perfectly possible that any North Sea worker could be blown to kingdom come in an instant.  And it’s not only the facts of the gigantic incompetent fuck up that led to the Elgin blowout endangering the lives of the 238 guys who were on the complex in 2012.   It’s also the disinformation from Total, a refusal by HSE to nail Total’s disinformation, and the failure of the industry in general, including the HSE, to LEARN ANY LESSONS from Elgin, that sets us up for another Piper Alpha sized disaster. 

We all need to know, if we don’t already, that if the lessons aren’t learnt from Elgin then we’ll have a repeat.  Not an exact repeat of course.  But the same arrogance and incompetence will be allowed to thrive because no one believes they will have to account for what they do.  No one has the slightest concern that they might have their collar felt if they are lazy and incompetent and arrogant.  And as sure as night follows day other emergencies will arise and will also be completely mismanaged.  And one day the wind will be blowing in the other direction.

This is the issue that not only can, but must mobilise the entire offshore workforce.  Even the most downtrodden, shit eating, time serving victim of our industry’s bullying and arse licking culture has a family at home who wouldn’t let him just put up with the shit for an easy life, if they thought that one of these trips he was going to go offshore and never come back.

It was this understanding that allowed the men to take the incredible action they did in the strikes in ’89 and ’90 in the wake of the 167 deaths on Piper Alpha.  And it was the betrayal of the men by the offshore unions that have made the unions unfit to ever command the loyalty of the majority of the offshore workforce (whether the unions or even the workforce know it or not). 

I don’t think that there is NOT a role for trade union members to be active in their union and keep the pressure on the bureaucrats and expose them for what they are and let the rest of us know what they’re up to.  And best of luck!  But there is a far more pressing job to be done.   We need to challenge the offshore safety regime.  We all know anyway that it’s a farce designed to discipline workers, not protect them.

Start by asking your OIM/Toolpusher/Company man, what the lessons of the Elgin Blowout are and how these lessons have been applied on your platform.  I’ll think of some more specific questions you can ask if you’re up for it. Come on here and tell everyone what they say in reply.  And if they don’t give you an answer that reassures you.  You, and the guys who would like to keep their heads below the parapet, are going to have to make some decisions.

And s

And while you’re at it, you guys who work for, or under, Wood Group might like to ask them for the details of what happened on Black Elk’s West Delta platform in the Gulf of Mexico.  Have a look at this article from Energy Voice. 

the blaze on Black Elk’s West Delta platform

via Energy Voice | UPDATED: Wood Group PSN to pay $9.5million over Gulf of Mexico incidents – News for the Oil and Gas Sector

I’ll see if I can get some clarification about how culpable  Wood Group were for the deaths and injuries as well as the spill (it’s not clear to me from the article), and post it on here. 

Do you think Wood Group can convince you that, 

“safety and assurance is always the firm’s highest priority and that steps had been taken to avoid repeat incidents”? 

Because that’s what I think these lazy bastards say when they can’t even be bothered to make up a new lie.

Keep coming back on here and taking a look to see if I’ve managed to get more stuff about the Elgin near catastrophe up on the site.  Have a look at the HSE report of their investigation into Elgin and the transcript of Total’s trial before the Sheriff in Aberdeen. 

Have your say on anything that you do, or don’t, agree with. If you’ve questions I’ll do my best to answer them.

James Tiberius Furie posted on the Facebook page “The OCG is for me! ( Unofficial page)”, and in a conversation on Messenger. He followed up with;

“Neil Rothnie.  You were there.  A fair reflection?”

My comment in reply to James is below.

James Tiberius Furie wrote;

Sit down get comfy here’s a brief history

This is real non erroneous fact Tommy (Tommy Campbell, OCG Chair and Unite) so it’s staying

Let’s go back

It’s the 80s and a group of offshore workers launch bear facts in an attempt to educate the workforce and empower them to fight for a better deal from the current set up of unions happy to sign hook-up agreements to maintain cosy relationships with big oil .

The then current unions took the activists from the bear facts campaign and the early stages of the oilc came about , In the post piper days they fought for unity and a single ukcs agreement however close they came the Tuc unions then distanced themselves from this group of offshore workers .

Fast forward to June 2000

Employment Relations Act 1999 came into effect for the offshore workforce on the 6/6 48 hours previously the Oca and ukdca agreement ended up signed by Oca – Gmb ,Unite

Ukdca – Unite

These agreements meant that two trade unions had entered into a partnership with employers to deny workers a human right to pick whom they would choose to represent them .

Also the legislation meant that despite membership figures (which would remain hidden for years ,all though the unions would periodically bang a drum threatening strike action , the alleged no strike clause meant they would never for fear of revealing membership figures ) they would keep the cosy set up !! Imagine that Unions in partnership with employers denying members a human right !

Who knows what the future holds , will the unions change approach ? Will they continue to protect the agreement? Will the contracting companies walk ?

I’d like to say we have the answers but we don’t and judging by the current crop of appointees and the masses still to have their eyes opened who knows ?

What you can be sure of is that the Furie activists continue to grow and the Unions hopefully will invite us to talks to use our knowledge to better things !

After 30 years all the TUC trade unions combined can only claim a mere few thousand members offshore out of the total workforce . And the great bulk of that minority look to the Furies for leadership. It is not the Furies who are the “Union busters ” but the power-crazy officials and organisers of the Gmb and Unite who cannot accept the burning need for workers’ unity in the North Sea over their own greed to keep their own golden Egg polished and the need to protect the agreements that so blatantly deny the people they supposedly represent the chance to have their terms and conditions negotiated rather than collectively begged .

The current crop need a change of attitude and direction before we all implode , and whilst it’s been fun and educating it’s also frustrating and painful and we are in it for the long haul .

My comment in rely to James:

Well James Tiberius Furie!  Looks like you’ve already spoken to someone else who was also “there” in the 80s.  Either that or you were there yourself, and you’ve just got an uncommon amount of energy for someone so old. 

Your version seems fine to me as far as it goes. But it needs to be said that, since way before the OCA and UKDCA sweetheart agreements, and right up until 2008, there was a 20 year attempt to build an independent, alternative union on the North Sea. That was the OILC. And that’s why I’ve suggested that if there’s going to be a serious attempt to challenge the employers and their “partners” in the unions, there should be an attempt to get the founding father of OILC, Ronnie MacDonald, to begin a discussion on the history and the lessons of that experience. Who knows the story better than him?

Where is OILC today?  Is RMT (and it’s offshore division) now just part of the problem?  The other TUC unions certainly are.  RMT is also part of the OCG.  And it doesn’t seem to be having any very positive influence on UNITE and the GMB. Does it?  I campaigned for and voted for OILC to become part of RMT. I now think I was wrong. I went on to be the first Secretary of the OILC branch of RMT and after that a member of the RMT Council of Executives.

I didn’t have the answers then.  And like you, I don’t have the answers now. I don’t know what it will take to turn the North Sea round.  Maybe nothing can.  But I do know what won’t turn it round.  It won’t be the official unions. They won’t “change their approach”.  And you can bet that if they did invite the Furies to talks, it wouldn’t be so they could learn from the Furies how to go on to better things.  If the unions tried to embrace the Furies it would only be so they could try and squeeze the fucking life out of us.

If the majority of offshore workers don’t say “enough is enough”, and soon, who knows where safety and wages and conditions will end up. And who says big oil and the Government won’t fuck up the entire industry through a combination of sheer greed and incompetence? The banks very nearly did for the global economy and would have if we (our money) hadn’t bailed them out. The industry globally has only a finite amount of time left.  Fuck!  It looks like we’re counting down on the future of the whole planet.  Yes! I know it’ll probably outlast you and me.

That’s getting on for half a century of failure by the offshore unions to offer the workers some viable united focus for taking some control of their lives offshore.  So it’s just about understandable that a load of guys keep their heads down and say “at least I’ve got a job”, “the money’s OK”, “it’s better than 5 (or 6 or even 7) days a week graft on the beach with no time off”, or a load of other rationalisations, which almost always finish off with “the unions are a load of crap anyway”. And those of us who persisted with the trade unions know how difficult that is to argue against.

But what really amazes me is that not one worker caught up in the Elgin near catastrophe has put his head above the parapet and let the rest of us know what really went on on the G4 well and the evacuation that followed.  Because death’s not like taking a wage cut, or getting forced on to 3 and 3.  The families ashore don’t ever get over the deaths. Nor do the survivors including those of us not even physically near the disaster at the time.  We came very close to multiple deaths that day in March 2012.  And there are no ‘lessons” out there which suggest that the industry won’t let such an “incident” happen again – next time with the wind blowing in the wrong direction. 

For years now, some of the best and most experienced guys offshore have been getting bladdered to meet cost cutting goals. Some guys have been finding something else meaningful to do with their lives. Others have continued to be dug out by the NRB because they demand a little bit of respect.  I suppose what happens next is how much more the Furies can put up with.  If it does all kick off, those who say “enough is enough” are going to have to deal with those guys on the tools offshore who are prepared to just go along with the prevailing culture dripping down from the top in a stinking cesspit of an industry. It was ever thus. Think about the miners. Time to find out who’s up for a fight and who’s not.

From here on I’ll be spending what time I can spare from my retirement and my new granddaughter, trying to make sure the lessons of the Elgin blowout are learnt and that everyone offshore knows what they are.  I don’t have to put up with the shit any more.  But like the rest of you I’ll have to put up with the effects of a major disaster if our luck doesn’t hold out.

I’ll put all the stuff I’m finding out about Elgin, out to anyone who’s interested.  I’ll post it on here. Be patient.  It’ll take some time to get it all on.  Maybe if enough guys get angry we’ll avoid another Piper Alpha sized disaster on the North Sea. And maybe some of that anger can be channelled into demanding some respect from employers and unions alike.

See you the demo when the date is finalised.

Two blowouts on Elgin in 5 years

It’s nearly five years since Total screwed up badly on their G4 well on  the Elgin A wellhead platform and nearly blew the complex apart. Back then they allowed a shitload (8,000m3/hr) of highly flammable hydrocarbon gas to spew onto the Elgin Wellhead Platform, and just under the drill floor of the jack-up drilling rig, Rowan Viking.

Total got everyone (238 men) off the complex by helicopter (219 of them in under 4 hours from the moment the well blew out).  All the while a naked flame burned in the flare stack about 100m away from (and above) the escaping gas.  The wind direction that day was what avoided a catastrophe.  Have a look at the photo on the cover of the HSE’s report.  HSE Report on Elgin Blowout – redacted . The flare stack is the derrick with the kink at the top. 

Total never once used the technical term for such an event – blowout.  Not even while the Sheriff was fining them £1,125 million pounds in Aberdeen 4 years after the event.  But even in court the true extent of Total’s culpability was not exposed by the HSE’s prosecution.  

And just when I was beginning to think that Total’s disinformation, aided and abetted by the HSE’s softly softly approach, was going to succeed in burying the near catastrophe, without Total’s mistakes being fully exposed to the scrutiny of the offshore workforce, or any lessons having been learnt or widely understood throughout the industry, what happens?

Total screw up again.  This time on the Elgin B wellhead platform on January 19 this year (2017). The B is connected to the A via a bridge.

Another blowout?  Yes!  This time an underground blowout. And suddenly Total and the HSE are  in the news again.

Responding to press interest, Total, true to form, avoided making any mention of a “blowout”.  This time it was “some difficulties” and they had the gall to tell the press that, “At all times the well was under control at the surface and there was no loss of containment,” And then, maybe because they think we’re all as dim as the journalists who act as their PR, they added that there was a “leak” (?) and talked about an “unexpected flow about 4 km below the seabed”, and admitted that “wireline measurements carried out inside the drill string indicate some flow exists within the well which means part of the well may need to be plugged and abandoned.”

That’ll be an “underground blowout” then.  Pound to a penny!

The HSE are remaining tight lipped about what the incident entailed. They claimed to be “aware of an incident and making preliminary inquiries.”  Don’t hold your breath!  They took 4 years to investigate the more serious 2012 blowout and have no intention of ever publishing their report HSE Report on Elgin Blowout – redacted into that near catastrophe.

Why is all this important?

Because blowouts are often catastrophic and result in major loss of life. Only good luck, the direction of the wind, avoided a major disaster on Elgin/Rowan Viking in 2012. Blowouts can only occur if a serious mistake is made by the well operator/driller (and much more commonly when multiple mistakes are made). Only transparency can allow the lessons to be learnt and a repeat avoided.  Next time Total, or some other operator unaware of the lessons of Elgin, allows a well to blow out, and lady luck doesn’t lend a hand, it will be offshore oil workers who die. And it will be their families ashore who will suffer for the rest of their lives.