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The toughest labour dispute

person by Trude Meland, Norwegian Petroleum Museum
Unemployment was high in Norway during 1990, and oil prices low. But offshore workers still had high expectations of the year’s collective bargaining round. After two years of a legally enforced pay freeze, they wanted something back for the moderation they had shown in previous settlements.
— Coffee break. Photo: Mobil Exploration Norway Inc./Norwegian Petroleum Museum
© Norsk Oljemuseum

The national agreement reached between the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Confederation of Norwegian Industries (NHO) was voted down by the union members, and had to be renegotiated. It was accordingly crucial for the NHO that the oil agreement stayed within this framework, or the knock-on effect with other groups would be considerable.

On the employer side, coordination had been strengthened by the formation of the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF) on 1 December 1987. This merged the Norwegian Industry Association for Operator Companies (Nifo) and the Norwegian Oil Industry Employers Association (Noaf). Statoil had also become operator for Statfjord since the previous main pay settlement in 1986, and had brought both Gullfaks A and B on stream. The company thereby ranked as the largest employer on the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS).

The unions had geared up for a conflict. They were used to seeing such disputes referred to compulsory arbitration and maintained that they accordingly lacked a genuine right to strike. On this occasion, they were ready to continue a possible stoppage even after compulsory arbitration had been ordered – even if such action would be a breach of Norwegian law.

A strike warning was issued by the Federation of Offshore Workers Trade Unions (OFS) for all its members on 6 June. When mediation failed to yield a result, the stoppage began in the early morning of 1 July. The government resolved after just 36 hours that the dispute would be settled by the National Wages Board, as with the five previous pay bargaining rounds. That was as expected, but the unions were nevertheless surprised that the decision was taken so quickly. Both the timing and the decision itself were seen as a provocation by the workers, who hastily called town hall meetings on the platforms. A majority voted to remain on strike.

The employers were better organised than they had been during the illegal strikes in 1981, and had also prepared well. Communication between land and platform was halted in a number of locations, and the strikers were unable even to call home to their families.

Platform managers were instructed to issue dismissal notices to workers who had taken part in episodes. Several of the managers felt they were being subjected to unacceptable pressure. They knew that life on a platform would become more difficult if the relationship between management and workforce became strained.

The strikers on Ekofisk capitulated on 5 July, and others followed suit. Statoil employees on Statfjord and Gullfaks remained out, but came under great pressure.

Statoil’s management stood firm by the argument that the strike was illegal and that the company could not negotiate with the workforce under any circumstances as long as the stoppage continued. The employees would have to accept full responsibility for ending the stand-off, and those who participated in the strike were putting their continued employment at risk. They also surrendered on 7 July.

The OFS leadership had, of necessity, repudiated the illegal strikes. But the outcome was nevertheless a defeat for the union. A total of 28 workers were dismissed, including six on Statfjord, two on Ekofisk and 20 at drilling contractor Smedvig. This dispute left deep wounds. Statoil stood firm on the dismissals, even after Phillips had reinstated the two it had fired. Finally, it agreed to take back the six on specific conditions. The OFS had to accept full responsibility for the illegal strike and also implement disciplinary measures against key elected officials. This meant that a convenor and deputy convenor had to stand down.

Replacing loading buoyHelicopter crash during search operation
Published December 4, 2019   •   Updated December 19, 2019
© Norsk Oljemuseum
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