With safety of paramount importance, the battle to build effective union organisation in the offshore industry can be a matter of life and death. Jake Molloy, Neil Rothnie and Mike McCaig of OILC, the energy branch of the RMT union, spoke to Socialist Worker about the challenge.
'We are up against strong enemies in our search to get safe working conditions, decent pay and union rights,' says Jake. 'The oil firms are the most powerful corporations in the world, backed by governments that will go to war for them.
'We are the union that fights back, so it's not surprising we come under pressure! But when there is serious resistance victories are possible. At the end of 2006 divers launched a strike and won a rise of around 45 percent over two years.
'Bosses are now trying to use the recession to hit back. Divers have been offered the RPI inflation figure plus 1.5 percent for this year. Other groups are getting even worse deals. I know of onshore workers who have accepted a 20 percent pay cut.
'The oil firms plead poverty because oil is $50 a barrel – but I don't remember them handing out money when it was $150 a barrel.
'Some 50,000 jobs are now under threat. It's an excuse to restructure the workforce and cheapen the business. It's also blackmail against the government to get taxes lowered.'
Neil adds that 'Shell made £22 billion profit last year, and BP got £18 billion. Profits have been so high that the investment in platforms is paid off very quickly so a rig is just a cash machine. But the economic crisis means there is pressure to cut costs and jobs.
'We are also fighting sweetheart trade unionism by the Amicus section of Unite – and the deals its forerunners signed nine years ago.
'Their only purpose was to head off ballots under the Employment Rights Act that could have put in place a legally binding agreement.
'The ballots never took place because the offshore employers signed a sweetheart agreement with Amicus. Now 28,000 workers in the industry are effectively denied their rights. There are some areas where we have 100 percent membership and Amicus has nobody but it keeps recognition.'
The threat of victimisation means you won't find mention of names in OILC's publications, unless they are union officials. Instead articles are signed by 'Member M0105973' or similar.
'We have been cursed by the NRB (Not Required Back) culture,' says Mike. 'I've suffered from it myself. Employers would mark NRB against your name if you tried to organise on the rigs, and you were blacklisted for the future.
'After 30 years the companies have been forced to admit that this system exists, and there's now a protocol that is supposed to protect the union and safety work. But the fear is till there.'
OILC was formed in 1988 in the aftermath of the Piper Alpha tragedy in which 167 offshore workers were killed. And there are fears of a repeat.
'The oil firms now spend much more on safety and there are better procedures,' says Jake. 'But in some places the infrastructure is rotting and maintenance is neglected. That is a terrible threat.'
OILC faces hard challenges, but there is a spirit of resistance among its members.
Bosses at Babcock Marine in Devonport, Plymouth, met reps from the GMB and Unite unions to try and avert a strike ballot over conditions and job cuts. A consultative ballot of around 2,300 dockyard workers returned a result of 97 percent in favour of strikes.