Mobil opens Oslo officeStorting approves landing gas at Kårstø

Illegal labour conflicts

person By Trude Meland, Norwegian Petroleum Museum
The level of discontent on the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS) was high when pay talks began in the spring of 1981. In theory, the Norwegian Operator Companies Employers Association (Noaf) was responsible for coordinating the negotiations on the employer side. But the reality was that the three foreign operators – Mobil, Elf and Phillips – all pursued their own talks with the Federation of Offshore Workers Trade Unions (OFS).
— frontpage of "LABOR CONFLICTS IN THE NORWEGIAN petroleum sector"
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Each of the operators had its own remuneration system. Mobil’s solution was based on minimum pay rates plus individual increments, while the two others had variations of a system where job category and seniority determined pay.

   Mobil employees had the highest pay on average, and the OFS based its demands during the negotiations on these rates, but with an increment for seniority. The companies were not enthusiastic about these proposals, and Mobil argued that such a system made it difficult to use pay rates to promote productivity.

   The talks broke down in Aker, and the OLF gave notice of strike action. It took out all its members in Mobil, Elf and Phillips, just over 2 000 workers in all. The union was demanding a rise of NOK 13 000 from 1 April to the end of the year.

   A ban on downing tools was issued by the National Mediator, who called in the sides for compulsory mediation. A mediated proposal was presented but rejected by a ballot of the OFS membership. The OLF gave notice of a new strike on 24 August.

   The government once again imposed compulsory arbitration with effect from 26 August. Personnel on Ekofisk and Frigg returned to work, but the strike continued on Statfjord. This was illegal under Norwegian labour relations law.

   Mobil threatened to lay people off and to seek compensation for lost production during the strike. Calls by union officials to return to work went unheeded, and feelings were running high. After one day, Mobil yielded and produced an offer which was accepted by the workforce. Illegal action had once again proved rewarding.

   It subsequently transpired that non-union personnel in Mobil’s land-based organisation had received a rise of more than 11 per cent. That compared with 1.2 per cent for the offshore workforce. Operators on Statfjord who belonged to the company union ­– the Statfjord Workers Union (SaF) – started another illegal strike on 4 September.

   This stoppage was not officially supported by the OFS, but it had broad support among the membership. Mobil was initially loyal to the other two operators, but suddenly broke with them and accepted the workers’ demands. The strikers had got what they wanted and went back to work.

   Through their illegal campaigns, the Statfjord workers had exceeded the bounds of official income policy. And the willingness of the companies to accept the workforce’s pay demands breached the government’s economic policy and the pay restraint law which had come into force in February 1980.

   The National Wages Board had adopted a ceiling of NOK 1.50 per hour for wage drift in connection with the pay settlement. A general rise of NOK 0.74 per hour was agreed between the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Norwegian Employers Confederation (NAF). This decision was supported by the Labour Disputes Court. That had consequences at the next crossroads.

   A general election had taken place in Norway during the autumn of 1981, and the Conservative Party had formed a minority government under prime minister Kåre Willoch. It took the view that the oil companies had been excessively generous, and Willoch called them in for a discussion.

   At that meeting, he presented what became known as the Willoch doctrine. This stated clearly that a failure by the operators to control pay developments would have consequences for them in such areas as new licence awards, tax rules and regulations on labour disputes.

   That doctrine proved a turning point in relations between unions, companies and government. Until then, the unions had been able to exploit differences between the companies. But an alliance between the latter and the government removed that opportunity.

   The strikes and other campaigns experienced offshore up to 1981 were initiated and pursued from the shop floor outside the existing structure of legislation and collective agreements. From 1982, compulsory arbitration was a recurrent response to strike action. Given the government’s clear pay limits, too, little was to be gained by turning to the National Wages Board.

   After the good settlement in 1981, offshore workers had forfeited public sympathy. They were no longer regarded as innocent victims who were unreasonably treated by foreign companies, but as egotistical troublemakers.

Mobil opens Oslo officeStorting approves landing gas at Kårstø
Published December 3, 2019   •   Updated December 12, 2019
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