Through time: offshore strikes in the North Sea

Umar Ali 27 May 2019 (Last Updated May 28th, 2019 10:55)

The North Sea is no stranger to industrial action, with strikes becoming larger and more frequent in the area in recent years. Umar Ali explores the biggest North Sea strikes throughout history.

Through time: offshore strikes in the North Sea
On 17 July 2018, a strike against the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association organised by the Safe union began and ran for ten days. Credit: Courtesy of Teekay Corporation

July 1989 – Piper Alpha disaster

One of the earliest strikes in the North Sea was to commemorate the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, in which 167 workers were killed by an explosion at the Piper Alpha platform offshore Aberdeen.

In the wake of this disaster, the Offshore Industry Liason committee (OILC) trade union was formed.

Nearly 7,000 oil workers stayed away from work and halted production as part of a protest against the lack of new safety measures a year after the disaster.

The strikes were also intended to highlight safety legislation problems for offshore work. While the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act covered oil and gas workers onshore, offshore workers were not offered the legal protection provided by the act.

August 1990 – OILC strikes

Offshore strikes arose again in 1990, supported by the OILC.  Disputes over union recognition, safety and pay led to a number of offshore crews in the North Sea again downing tools. By August 1990, workers at 74 installations were striking.

OILC founder Ronnie McDonald told Energy Voice “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.

“Three imposed wage hikes in the 17 months to mid-1990 delivered an average 47% pay rise to offshore contractor employees; yes, 47%.

“The cash was welcome. But 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.”

June 2012 – Norwegian unions vs OLF

Norwegian offshore workers from the SAFE, Industri Energi and Lederne unions began industrial action against the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF) on 24 June 2012.

They demanded wage increases, better overtime pay and the right to retire at 62, which were initially refused by the OLF.

The strike lasted 16 days, and was estimated to have cost Norway $300m. Total oil production in Norway was cut by 13% and gas output by 4%.

The Norwegian government eventually had to use emergency powers to end the strike. The industrial action resulted in arbitration talks in September 2012 to avert another strike, earning the workers holiday allowances, an increase in shift rates and a 4.5% rise in wages.

July 2016 – Unite vs Shell

Around 400 workers on Shell’s North Sea platforms went on strike for 24 hours on 26 July 2016.

The strike was in opposition to pay cuts that workers feared would reduce their pay and allowances by up to 30%, as well as changes in schedule from a two-week cycle to a three-week cycle without a rise in pay.

“Strike action by our members is not a decision they take lightly, but they have been pushed to the limit by an employer unwilling to rethink proposals to slash their pay and allowances,” said Unite regional officer John Boland.

Shell described the industrial action as “highly regrettable” and “counter-productive.”

July 2018 – Safe vs Norwegian Shipowners’ Association

On 17 July 2018, a strike against the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association organised by the Safe union began and ran for ten days.

The primary reason for the strike was pension rights, but the unions also argued for floating rig workers to be paid the same as platform workers.

The strike eventually included 1,600 workers on rigs operated by companies such as Transocean, Saipem and Shell, the latter of which had to suspend production at its Knarr field, which produces 23,900 barrels of oil a day in addition to natural gas and natural gas liquids.

July 2018 – Unite vs Total

Soon after the strike against the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, Unite members working on three of Total’s platforms, Alwyn, Elgin and Dunbar, on the UK Continental Shelf took industrial action against a shift from a two-week rota to a three-week rota.

The strike action lasted from 23 July to September and affected production at the facilities, reducing gas output by as much as 13 million cubic metres per day and oil output by around 70,000 barrels per day.

This strike caused Shell to adjust its rota system in September 2018 to avoid similar industrial action on its platforms.

March 2019 – Unite vs Total again

Once again disputes between Unite and Total led to strike action on the Alwyn, Elgin and Dunbar platforms, with a new round of protests taking place on 11 March 2019. These platforms collectively hire over 200 workers.

Similar to the July 2018 strike, the dispute was over proposals of shift rotation changes that would make existing terms and conditions less favourable.

“Aker and Petrofac, at Total’s bidding, are trying to force our members’ rotas being changed from 2:3 to the hated 3:3 or 3:4,” said Unite regional industrial officer John Boland.

“Shamefully, workers are also being frozen out of the existing competency scheme that rewarded members for being more skilled and was a route to progression.”

The strike consisted of a combination of 24-hour and three-hour strikes, as well as an overtime ban over five weeks.