Foreigners, unions and a strike
Britons and Americans accounted for 46 per cent of the foreign personnel, or 12 per cent of the overall workforce. They were largely supervisors and specialists. Three per cent of the workers were from the other Nordic countries, primarily Sweden and Finland. They were hired in by Swedish contractors and staffing companies.
Thirty-seven per cent of the foreigners were defined as “Latins” – 50 per cent Spaniards, 33 per cent Mexican and the rest Portuguese. While the Latin workers were noted for their craft skills, primarily as pipe fitters and welders, they had worse terms of employment than other groups.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Godø, Helge. Plattformbygging til havs. Rogaland Research report no S 5, 1980: 183.
These Latin construction personnel were hired in by subsidiaries of US engineering contractor Brown & Root. A number of these companies had specialised in acquiring cheap labour for such work. It is difficult to know which company was the legal employer of a Latin worker.
However, it was clear that they received their employment documents in the Dutch port of Rotterdam, and that none were employed by Brown & Root Norge A/S or the US parent company for which the American supervisors worked.
Brown & Root BV in Rotterdam, Brown & Root NV, registered in the Netherlands Antilles, and another company called Eumech operated as the employers. Latin workers on the crane or pipelaying vessels owned by Brown & Root were employed by the group’s Panama-registered shipping company.
So employment contracts were issued in Rotterdam. The workers were employed on a hourly rate with certain offshore supplements. They were promised a bonus when the contract expired, based on the length of employment.
At first, the foreign workers on Statfjord worked 30-day tours offshore with 14 days free on land. The introduction of Norway’s Working Environment Act in November 1977 was followed by the adoption of a 12-hour day with 28-day tours offshore and 28 days free. A maximum working time of 1 733 hours per year also came into force.
The Latin employees had poorer pay and job protection than their Norwegian colleagues. In addition, a feeling of ethnic isolation was widespread on Statfjord A. The Latins largely worked on the night shift, lived together on one of the flotels and were linguistically isolated since few could speak much English. Working at night meant they did not get to see the films in the cinema, and few of these were anyway in Spanish. Nor were they particularly keen on the food served, which was aimed at Norwegian palates.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Godø, Helge. Plattformbygging til havs. Rogaland Research report no S 5, 1980: 184.
When the Latin workers were appointed, they had to sign two documents – a contract of employment with one of Brown & Root’s subsidiaries, and an enrolment form for the Offshore Employees Organisation (OEO). This “house” union was controlled by Brown & Root, which appointed the employee representatives itself – primarily Britons.
The compulsorily enrolled members had to pay membership dues which were automatically deducted from their pay. Membership meetings were never held, no membership journal or other information was published and no membership cards were issued. The workers also had to sign a declaration that they did not wish to take advantage of Norwegian employment legislation.
Dissatisfaction with working conditions spread among the Latin workers during 1978. A number of them were dismissed in August because they had done more than their permitted quota of 1 733 hours per year for a North Sea workers under Norwegian legislation. Quite a few of the Latins had reached this limit in just eight months. Notice was quite short, less than a month according to the letter of dismissal.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Bergens Tidende, 18 August 1978. “Spanjoler oppsagt på Statfjord A”.
This was an efficient method of working for Brown & Root. As Bergens Tidende wrote on 19 August 1978: “The foreigners are allowed to work intensively for just over half a year. They have then used up the quota of 1 733 hours prescribed by Norwegian legislation for a whole year. The company then gets rid of the workers with best wishes for the future. There is no threat to the jobs, they can be filled by others on the same terms. The outcome: twice as much work gets done for each job.”[REMOVE]Fotnote: Bergens Tidende, 19 August 1978. “Kynisme i Nordsjøen”.
According to Brown & Root, no Spanish worker in its service was dismissed on Statfjord A. It was the employees who had used up their annual quota, and the company had no opportunity to continue employing them under Norwegian law.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Norges Handel og Sjøfartstidende. 21 august 1978. The letters of dismissal asked the workers to contact the company’s personnel department in Rotterdam if they felt they had been wrongfully fired.
The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) supported Brown & Root’s claim that the way it treated its workers did not breach Norwegian law, and that they should instead be pleased at not being exploited.
But NPD department head Nils Vogt felt that the position was not desirable and could be solved by changing the law or establishing an extended period of free time.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Bergens Tidende, 18 August 1978. “Spanjoler oppsagt på Statfjord A”.
Norwegian workers had a different system, which meant that they were out on the platform at regular intervals throughout the year and therefore had no problem with exceeding the legal limit on working hours.
Can the union help?
The newly established Norwegian Union of Oil and Petrochemical Workers (Nopef) launched a campaign in the summer of 1977 to recruit Spanish-speaking workers in the North Sea. More than 40 foreigners on Statfjord joined.
Nopef eventually secured an agreement with Brown & Root under which the union would check that the foreign workers had the same pay and conditions of employment as the Norwegians. They would pay 90 per cent of the normal membership due, and the foreign employer was responsible for making these payments. In addition, the union had to draw up a list of which workers were covered by the dues paid.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Johansen, Terje. Kampen om arbeideren. Nopefs historie . Stavanger 2009: 113. A protocol existed which allowed the union to enter into such “checking” agreements with foreign companies which had contracts in Norway. The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Norwegian Employers Confederation (NAF) were to check that foreigners had the same pay and conditions of employment as Norwegian workers. Nopef demanded an agreement on pay and conditions for foreigners employed by Eumec Division Norway in Brown & Root Ltd. But the problem was that the company did not belong to the NAF. Brown & Root regarded Nopef as a gang of corrupt bandits who were trying to secure control over the workers and the company.
Nopef and Brown & Root reached agreement in November on an accord which specified that foreigners who had worked more than the 1 733 hours permitted under the regulations should retain their jobs. They would remain in the tour system until the end of the year, even if this represented a breach of the working time provision in the Working Environment Act.
Section 46-8 of the Act permitted unions to reach agreements on longer working hours. Such agreements should only last to the end of the year. For the following calendar year, 1979, work had to be spread over the whole 12 months.
The union was normally sceptical of extending the limit on working hours, but took the view in this case that much of the fault lay with the NPD through its approval of the tour system for foreigners.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Dagbladet, 6 September 1978. “Hundrevis av olje-arbeidere får jobbene tilbake”.
However, this new agreement did not reduce dissatisfaction on Statfjord. Complaints continued about dismissals, discriminatory treatment, unclear tax rules and compulsory membership of the OEO.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Johansen, Terje. Kampen om arbeideren. Nopefs historie . Stavanger 2009: 114.
A meeting was held on 23 September 1978 between representatives from Brown & Root and the Spanish workers. The requests which later became strike demands were presented. Brown & Root refused to yield and received passive support from the “elected officials” in the OEO.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Asenjo, Augustin. Norsk olje spansk svette. Pax Forlag 1979: 106.
Portuguese and Latin American construction workers who belonged to Nopef went on strike.
Several demands were made.
- A change in the tax position. The foreign workers paid 30 per cent tax to Norway without, in their view, getting anything in return. They also wanted tax refunded for 1977 and 1978
- Increases in subsistence allowances and pay. The strikers wanted a 20 per cent supplement for working the night shift and 100 per cent extra for overtime after 12 hours. They otherwise wanted equal pay with the other skilled workers. In addition, they maintained that the subsistence allowances they received for travel home did not even cover the cheapest dishes at the hotels they stayed in
- A guaranteed final bonus. They wanted the promised bonus paid if they were dismissed, a guaranteed final settlement and an agreement on notice with pay which was as good as the Norwegians had
- The seniority principle (first in, last out) should apply to dismissals. The strikers wanted a guarantee that staffing reductions on the platform would follow this principle
- Holiday pay
- Freedom to join the union of their choice, without compulsory enrolment in the OEO
- Brown & Root reacted as expected. It would not consider the demands or negotiate with the strikers until they went back to work, and declared the stoppage illegal. The strike took Nopef by surprise, and the union also declared it illegal and urged the workers to return to work in order to get into a negotiating position
A sympathy strike broke out on Ekofisk and Eldfisk on 2 October, but was resolved after a few days. An agreement was negotiated there by the OEO. But the strikers on Statfjord A refused to recognise the OEO as their union any more, and said the agreement thereby did not apply to them. They wanted a written offer from Brown & Root.
Unlike the “smoking” strike a couple of months earlier, where the Spanish-speaking workers had given the strikers their full backing, they failed to get support from the Norwegians for their fight. Rather, they were isolated. They kept to the Polymariner flotel, and the gangways between that vessel and Statfjord A were guarded by security staff from Norway’s Securitas company.
During the stoppage, Nopef sent several of its elected officials offshore to try to persuade the strikers to go back to work. This had no effect on their morale. Representatives from the relevant embassies also flew out to talk with the strikers.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Stavanger Aftenblad, 21 October 1978. “600,- dagen på Statfjord A”. Things went so far that five members of the support committee in Bergen went on hunger strike to demonstrate their backing. Nevertheless, about 40 of the strikers gave up along the way. This meant that about 82 workers were still out when the stoppage was called off after a month.
Brown & Root long stayed passive. It undoubtedly hoped that the strike would disappear of its own accord. The company first took an initiative after the strike had lasted for three weeks. It then received help from the NPD, which agreed that the strikers were breaking the law by remaining on the platform beyond their 28-day tour.
The NPD declared their presence on Statfjord A to be illegal. Brown & Root also issued a clear ultimatum: “Go back to work or get out of the North Sea.”[REMOVE]Fotnote: Dagbladet, 23 October 1978. “Politiet væpnet med køller og gasspistoler ”. And it got other Spanish-speaking workers waiting to go offshore in Bergen to sign a declaration that they would not join the strike when they came out.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Godø, Helge. Plattformbygging til havs. Rogaland Research report no S 5, 1980: 202.
The police are comming
A telex from the NPD to the strikers notified them that their presence on the platform was illegal. It was also stated that Mobil itself could determine if it wanted to put the strikers ashore and that it could use “appropriate authority to effectuate this”.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Stavanger Aftenblad, 23 October 1978. “Politiet på Statfjord uten noe dramatikk”.
Fearful of fights breaking out between the strikers and others on Statfjord A, Mobil asked the Stavanger police force to send officers to the platform. Eight policemen were sent out, armed with batons and gas pistols. No specific episodes had occurred to warrant this action.
Early in the morning of Sunday 21 October, officers entered the cabins of the strike leaders and told them they had to leave the platform on the waiting helicopters. At the same time, the strikers were prevented from using the telephone to call land or to move between the two flotels.
Chief superintendent Gunvor Molaug told Stavanger Aftenblad that the police had not been asked to help remove the strikers from Statfjord A, but that their job was purely to maintain order.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Dagbladet, 23 October 1978. “Politiet væpnet med køller og gasspistoler ”. According to the paper, however, Mobil had secured helicopters to fly the strikers to land and lists had been drawn up of those to be removed.
The strikers refused to leave the platform, even though the police – according to the strikers – had tried to persuade them on an individual basis to get on the helicopter, and prevented them from contacting their fellow campaigners.
Molaug emphasised that the officers sent to Statfjord A were not from the anti-terrorist squad but ordinary constables from the uniformed branch. She explained that they were armed because “on land you can check the lie of the land. We couldn’t do that here. The eight went offshore precisely in order to see what was happening, and had orders to intervene if absolutely necessary.”[REMOVE]Fotnote: Stavanger Aftenblad, 23 October 1978. “Politiet på Statfjord uten noe dramatikk”.
The Norwegian workers on Statfjord A had so far stayed neutral over the strike, and had worked normally. But they also reacted strongly to calling in the police “to maintain law and order”. They were extremely critical of the way Mobil and Brown & Root were handling the stoppage.
On the day the police were preparing to fly out to Statfjord A, the strikers hired Supreme Court advocate Håkon Helle to deal with the legal aspects of the stoppage. He flew out to the platform immediately, and disagreed that the strike was illegal.
“As far as I can see, the foreign workers are not covered by a legal agreement on pay and conditions, and they accordingly have no obligation not to strike,” he told the media. “Nor are they covered by Nopef’s agreements.” In his view, too, Mobil could not put the workers ashore as long as the strike was legal.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Dagbladet Sørlandet, 23 October 1978. “De streikende forlot ikke Statfjord A”.
Brown & Root seated itself at the negotiating table on Tuesday 23 October. Friction quickly developed in the talks, and were postponed for three hours because the American platform manager refused to allow the strikers to use their own spokesperson, Jose Aguilar, as interpreter.
Mobil insisted that its interpreter should be used. It regarded Aguilar as politically dangerous and undesirable on the platform.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Bergens Tidende, 24 October 1978. “Sta plattformsjef største hindringen”. The upshot was that Aguilar was allowed to serve as the interpreter, and the platform manager left the room in protest.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Nilsen, Bjørn. Det brutale oljeeventyret . Oslo 1979: 85 og Godø, Helge. Plattformbygging til havs. Rogaland Research report no S 5, 1980: 203.
After several hours of talks, the two sides reached agreement and the strike was called off. The foreign workers saw their demands met and regarded the agreement as a great victory. The biggest success was that they had forced the global Brown & Root company to the negotiating table before the strike had been called off.
Brown & Root conceded the demands for 60 days pay after dismissal, staffing reductions in accordance with seniority and full freedom to join a union of their choice. This meant in practice that the OEO would either be dissolved or become a member-run organisation.
The company also gave guarantees that there would be no reprisals against the strikers. That is stated in the minutes of the 23 October meeting. But none of the strikers ever returned to Statfjord A, and no information is available about what happened to them.
A number were demobilised or flown over to the UK continental shelf.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Godø, Helge. Plattformbygging til havs. Rogaland Research report no S 5, 1980: 203. Brown & Root claimed that it had conceded nothing through the agreement. All the demands met had already been accepted before the negotiations began.
On 25 October, Oslo daily VG met some of the strikers on their arrival at Bergen’s Flesland airport. “Three members of the strike committee on Statfjord A were greeted as heroes by Spanish, Mexicans and Portuguese workers when they arrived at Flesland yesterday,” the paper reported.[REMOVE]Fotnote: VG, 25 October 1978. “Mottatt som helter”.
The workers were pleased with the result, and particularly that Brown & Root had been forced to negotiate with them. They maintained that the company had meet most of their demands, both social and financial.
But the final word had not been said, because the matter was to be considered by the courts. According to the agreement, the financial demands were to be submitted to voluntary arbitration – even though the workers had understood that agreement was reached on the 20 per cent night supplement and 100 per overtime pay.
However, all the strike demands were rejected when the arbitration tribunal gave judgement on 30 January 1979. A good deal of criticism was admittedly levelled at Brown & Root and the OEO in the judgement, and the tribunal reached its decision with reservations.
It was supposed to determine whether the OEO could be regarded as a normal trade union, so that an agreement on pay and conditions had been established between the two sides. The tribunal could not find that the relationship with the OEO was normal, since it had been set up with the company’s involvement and the influence of the employees was thereby small. The employees were nor properly informed of their rights and had been almost forced to enrol if they wanted to work for Brown & Root.
The tribunal nevertheless concluded that a normal agreement on pay and conditions existed between the two sides. This conclusion was reached on the basis that the company had said it would not prevent the workers freely deciding to join another union. The tribunal also found that the strike had been illegal.
The demand for a 100 per cent overtime supplement and a night work supplement fared no better. The tribunal admittedly conceded that the Norwegian Brownaker employees received this, and that foreigners in principle should have the same. But it concluded that this would create problems.
Other workers would demand the same if the strikers secured acceptance for their demands. That would in the event have to be conceded, or unfortunate divisions would arise between people doing the same work. The demand by the strikers was accordingly turned down.
A claim for pay during the strike was bluntly rejected. So the outcome was that the demands presented by the strike committee for the foreign workers were not met.
The demands directed at the Norwegian government over tax and social security arrangements had been excluded from the negotiations, but the authorities promised to look at the issue. It later became clear that any tax refund to the workers was out of the question.Statfjord A loading buoy towed outThe biggest single contract in Norwegian history