Wildcat day strike on North Sea oil rigs defies threats from employers and unions


Oil and gas rig workers in the North Sea staged an unofficial one-day strike last Thursday. They are demanding a coordinated pay rise across multiple platforms in defiance of threats made by employers and unions.

The industry specialist news site voice of energy (EV) listed 17 impacted facilities, adding that “hundreds of workers participated”. The locations where the actions took place, according to the site, were: Buzzard, Beryl Alpha, Armada, Judy, Britannia, Forties Echo, Bravo, Alpha and Delta, Gannet, Pioneer, Jade, Everest and Brae Alpha.

An oil rig departing Hartlepool for the Buzzard field in 2010 [Photo by anonymous / CC BY-SA 4.0]

Companies affected included Bilfinger, Stork and Wood, with the strike involving workers from many offshore trades including scaffolders, painters, deck crew and fabricators. The 24-hour shutdown was coordinated on social media. Those who planned to participate were threatened with disciplinary action by management.

As the WSWS reported, the strike continued despite fierce opposition from recognized unions Unite, the RMT and the GMB, which aligned themselves squarely with energy service companies under contract to oil and gas companies operating the platforms.

EV reported a day before the strike that “union and business representatives” from “energy service companies including Wood, Bilfinger and Stork” had “warned that the action risked damage to the reputation of the North Sea and the prospect of future wage and job agreements.”

Unite, the RMT and the GMB defend the “reputation” of energy companies engaged in outright war profiting from the conflict in Ukraine and the embargo on Russian exports, driving up the price of fuel and energy. They are denying workers a living wage who have worked throughout the pandemic and seen their real wages plummet.

Among the facilities affected by the industrial action were the Judy platform operated by Harbor Energy and the Gannet complex operated by Shell. Harbor Energy “became the largest oil and gas producer in UK waters with a tenfold increase in pre-tax profits of $1.9 billion in the first half,” according to the report. FinancialTimes. Shell posted profits of $17.85 billion in the second quarter, a 107% increase over last year, bringing total profits this year to date to more than $20 billion.

Last Thursday saw the second wild action by rig workers in the North Sea since May, when more than a thousand rigs felled to demand a £7 rise in the basic hourly rate – in what they called a ‘wage revolution’. Ending the shutdowns after more than a week relied on unions to isolate action and oversee a return to work. Unite organized this under the pretext that Bilfinger, the energy services company at the center of the dispute, had agreed to sign a collective bargaining body known as the Energy Service Agreement (ESA).

The demands of the strike were never seriously taken into account. The 3% pay rise offered was later described by those involved in the action as “paltry since the benefits are huge”.

The organizers of the unofficial action set up the Offshore Oil and Gas Workers’ Strike Committee, which denounced the ESA and criticized the unions for years of inaction. A statement explained: “We can only get things done by taking matters into our own hands… The whole of the UK is angry at the cost of living. We are no different.

It is this determination that has compelled the unions to take an openly hostile stance in defense of their pro-corporate alliance.

The three unions issued a joint response proclaiming, “Our concern is that unofficial action risks everything” that could be achieved through ESA. “Trying smashing and exciting work for short-term gains, we fear, will only put the whole thing in jeopardy.”

Any fight against low wages requires a rebellion against unions working with energy service companies to maintain wages for the 5,000 workers covered by the ESA – a corporatist arrangement designed to suppress workers’ grievances. Collective agreements between the three unions and 14 employers set basic wage rates. The thresholds are dictated by business interests to ensure, in the words of the ESA, “the stability and certainty of a substantial cost element for industry and investors” and the “sustainability of the supply chain. supply”.

The Rate Adjustment Mechanism (RAM) determining wage allocations is calculated based on average inflation and oil and gas prices to circumvent wage negotiations and avoid labor disputes. The compensation price for 2022 was worked out long before the cost of living crisis and the mega profits raked in by the oil and gas companies, resulting in a paltry 2.32%.

Unite is limiting the spread of strikes to other key assets of North Sea energy companies. The union had voted against doctors working at six Shell facilities for strike action over an insulting 3.5% wage offer by United Healthcare Global. Unite reported that the company made profits of £8.9 million in 2020.

Although only involving 12 workers, the facilities would not have been able to function in the event of a strike. But Unite canceled the poll, the result of which was to be announced the same day as the unofficial action by platform workers. A Unite spokesman told EV he had “received an improved salary offer which they have accepted”. No public announcement has been made by the union on the details of the settlement.

A strike ballot organized by Unite, due to close on September 27, involves 300 offshore drilling and maintenance workers on a 5% wage offer from the United Kingdom Drilling Contractors Association (UKDCA). This collective bargaining agreement covers 600 workers, with Unite poll workers employed by major offshore contractors including Archer, Maersk, Transocean and Odfjell.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham ritually denounces ‘Filthy Rich’ companies at the start of any dispute before enforcing below-inflation wage deals to prevent a wave of strikes in key sectors of the economy, including including the onshore oil industry. Late last year, the union called off a strike at the UK’s second-largest oil refinery, Stanlow, operated by Essar Oil UK, and ended the strike at the country’s biggest in Fawley, owned by ExxonMobil, for below-inflation wage deals.

The unions’ crackdown on the savage action on the North Sea rigs goes hand in hand with their cancellation of the nationwide strike in response to the Queen’s death. The RMT under Mick Lynch led the way, followed by all the other rail unions. The Communication Workers Union led by Dave Ward dropped a strike by 115,000 Royal Mail workers halfway through a two-day action and Graham ensured Unite called off three strikes against bus companies by thousands of drivers and depot employees.

The respect shown to the royal embodiment of wealth and privilege confirms that these organizations will fight no real fight as working people are plunged into social hardship not seen since the Great Depression. Their weapon of choice is to invoke the need for “national unity” in mourning the queen against the development of the class struggle of workers against an economic and social order that exclusively serves the corporate and financial elite.

The working class faces the liberation of its struggles from a vast bureaucratic apparatus that functions as an industrial police. North Sea oil rig workers have taken an important step in this direction. This should become the basis for a network of grassroots committees, genuine and democratic struggle organizations that break down sectoral barriers between offshore and onshore workers, contractors and those directly employed by energy companies. Committees can reach out to oil and gas workers around the world to mobilize their collective strength against global energy companies to defend their standard of living.


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