Labour conflicts on Ekofisk

person by Kristin Øye Gjerde, Norwegian Petroleum Museum
Almost 600 Norwegian workers in the Brownaker joint venture downed tools on Eldfisk 2/7 A and 2/6 B on 20 May 1978, while more than 400 Spanish-speaking personnel launched a “go-slow” in sympathy. They refused to do the jobs the Norwegian strikers should have done. Ranked as the first strike on Ekofisk, this action was unleashed by working conditions which were regarded as unacceptable.
© Norsk Oljemuseum

First, a foreman was fired because he had used outdated drawings. Then, on the same day, a foreman scaffolder also lost his job for oversleeping – although he was placed in a night shift cabin and had not received the alarm call ordered.

The third man to be dismissed was a union official who tried to negotiate on behalf for the first pair. The Norwegian workforce then struck, and a go-slow began among the Spanish personnel.

This stoppage lasted for four days, and was resolved when the American supervisor concerned quit and moved across to the British sector.

The conflict on Eldfisk kicked off the most extensive wave of strikes in Norwegian history after 1945. According to calculations based on figures from Statistics Norway, offshore workers downed tools 26 times more often than industrial employees on land between 1978 and 1980.

Before 1980, almost all the stoppages involved contractor personnel organised in the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO).[REMOVE]Fotnote: Ryggvik, Helge and Smith-Solbakken, Marie, Blod, svette og olje. Norsk Oljehistorie, volume 3, 1997: 232-234.

Pay freeze and pressures

An Act to freeze pay rates for the whole of 1979 was passed by the Storting (parliament) in 1978. This government intervention created significant problems for the oil industry.

Only a few days before the freeze, employees at some of the drilling contractors secured substantial rises – something unionised workers at other drilling companies also wanted.

After a strike in December, union members in Dolphin Services A/S were given an exemption from the freeze. That mobilised the Ekofisk Committee.

For a start, it saw a Labour government intervene – with LO support – in the pay bargaining process and then the latter secure exemptions for some of its unions.

Second, a national mediator award from the year before meant that Ekofisk Committee members should have received a rise of 3.5 per cent from 1 January 1979. That was blocked by the freeze.

The Ekofisk Committee criticised the government for showing favouritism to the LO and threatened, together with personnel on Frigg, to stage a 12-hour political stoppage.

However, the Labour Court found this planned demonstration to be illegal. Five hundred Ekofisk workers downed tools for six hours in protest, but without seeking to shut down production.

Instead, all the facilities were abandoned to the care of the supervisors. The position was dramatic. A newly appointed platform superintendent on Cod was left to control all the machinery alone.

The stoppage passed without accidents, but the Ekofisk Committee reported Phillips to the police for breaching safety regulations by maintaining output during the strike.

While the issue had no legal follow-up, the union had demonstrated with all possible clarity that it was not subservient to the operator.

Strikes and safety

A strike on an offshore facility is in many respects a state of emergency. These installations deal with huge natural forces – oil and gas under high pressure. Opinions differ over whether sufficient attention was paid to this factor during conflicts.

Egil Lima was a supervisor and not unionised. In his view, many people behaved irrationally when they downed tools on offshore platforms.

But he understood that a number of the American supervisors could act in a provocative manner, and felt personally that he fell between two stools during a strike.

Lima found the mood particularly threatening on an occasion when the strikers stood on the Ekofisk tank and banged with their cups on the railings.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Interview with Egil Lima, 26 November 2001 – Ekofisk Cultural Heritage (extract).

Øyvind Krovik, as chair of the Ekofisk Committee, took a completely different view of the position: “In a conflict, matters have to be pushed to extremes.”

A strike involves balancing on a knife-edge, he believes, and illustrates this with an example from the first legal stoppage on Ekofisk which focused on sorting out working time arrangements:

“After the negotiations, the deadlines and all that we downed tools. We sent all contractor personnel ashore and maintained our own personnel in place.

Phillips then started sending supervisors out from land to keep the platforms out there operating. That included a helicopter flight which was due to land on Ekofisk 2/4 H.”

“I shouted: ‘Everyone on deck’, so that 100 of us stood on the helideck. The other side then claimed we had created a hazard by preventing a landing on the deck, which was risky. But another rig was moored right alongside.”

“Somebody photographed this incident, with the result that I went down and tore the camera out his hand. That was even reported in a small item on the front page of [Oslo daily] Aftenposten, which claimed I was guilty of causing actual bodily harm.

That was because the photographer’s finger had been sprained when I took the camera from him. What actually happened was that I took out the film, threw it into the sea and handed back the camera.”

In his view, full attention was paid to safety throughout and no hazardous circumstances arose at any time.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Interview with Øyvind Krovik, 31 January 2002 (extract).

Teddy Broadhurst was involved in union activities before becoming a platform superintendent. Among other jobs, he was in charge of Cod when a strike began and everything had to stop.

The shop steward on Cod received instructions that everyone had to down tools, while the platform was in full operation. Broadhurst believes that no weight was given to safety.

All work ceased, including in the control room, with personnel keeping to their cabins or the public areas – something Broadhurst found a scary experience.

He was the only person at work on board together with the catering staff, and had to continue looking after it all – a production platform with oil and gas under pressure.

“You couldn’t reveal externally that you were helpless,” he says. “But I thought about what would happen in the event of a fire or other critical conditions such as a man overboard, how they would be handled.

“I think most people would have come to their senses if something had occurred, but I felt that what they did was wrong.”

He personally would have had no problems with pressing the right button to shut everything down.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Interview with Teddy Broadhurst, 2 December 2001 (extract).

After this stoppage, a protocol was signed by all sides that a minimum safety manning would be maintained regardless of what happened during a strike.

Many people felt that the unions had become very powerful with time. Oil was increasingly important for Norway’s national budget, and being able to shut down platforms was a strong instrument.

That ran counter to the American culture, where keeping production going at all costs occupied centre stage.

“This was an important and slightly extreme internalised feeling, which we’d also been trained up to,” says Broadhurst. “Naturally, we’re going to maintain production today as well, but we now see that safety must be the highest priority.”

Battle for a collective agreement

After the OFS had been approved as a nationwide organisation in February 1980, negotiations were initiated with the oil companies to establish a new collective agreement on pay and conditions.

The talks also covered clarification of technical aspects such as the tour rotas and working hours, and bargaining over a general pay rise.

These issues concerned the foreign oil companies in particular and the negotiations ultimately collapsed. At 24.00 on 3 July 1980, all oil and gas production on the Norwegian continental shelf was shut down.

This strike was legal, and hit hard. But the “rich” oil workers who were downing tools had problems gaining sympathy from the general public.

However, the shop stewards had succeeded in winning support among the union membership for the importance of the strike, and the OFS showed no signs of wavering.

Efforts by the Phillips management to utilise supervisors as safety staffing on Ekofisk were perceived as strike-breaking by the workforce.

Matters almost boiled over when 100 men blocked the helideck to prevent these reinforcements arriving on the field, but things soon cooled down.

Although the LO’s central leadership was negative to the stoppage, Tom Nordahl – deputy head of the Norwegian Oil and Petrochemical Workers Union (Nopef), which belonged to the confederation – supported the strikers.

He stressed to his members that they should not do work which had been blocked or which was normally done by those who had downed tools.

With oil prices very high, the companies and the government were losing large sums for every day the shutdown continued. That applied not least to Phillips, which derived a large part of its income from the Norwegian continental shelf.

By the time the government finally imposed compulsory arbitration on 18 July 1980, it had lost NOK 1.5 billion in direct and indirect taxes.

The National Wages Board concluded that common working hours and tour arrangements should be developed. That was significant for pay negotiations over the next few years.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Ryggvik, Helge and Smith-Solbakken, Marie, Blod, svette og olje. Norsk Oljehistorie, volume 3, 1997: 254-259

Pay leap for operator personnel

Operator company employees offshore had been through a process to achieve pay bargaining rights, and expectations were high ahead of the negotiations in the spring of 1981.

But these talks foundered in early April, and the OFS gave notice of strike action. The government responded with compulsory arbitration, which would mean a rise similar to that on land.

OFS members on both Ekofisk and Statfjord wanted to down tools despite the government’s intervention. Agreement was reached that the stoppage would continue illegally on Statfjord, while the Ekofisk workforce would collect money.

But this cash was little needed. Operator Mobil soon yielded and produced a pay offer which was accepted by the Statfjord workforce.

Why the US company surrendered so readily was the subject of much speculation, but the most important reason was probably the desire for industrial peace on the field.

Although Mobil had calmed its own workforce, however, this did not apply in relation to the LO and the Norwegian Employers Confederation (NAF). LO head Tore Halvorsen was shocked at the company’s behaviour.

“Mobil’s capitulation to the OFS was a fine example of the way outsiders could destroy the income-policy solidarity which has been one of the cornerstones of the postwar period,” he told local daily Stavanger Aftenblad.

In his view, Statoil should take over as Statfjord operator instead –­­ which Arve Johnsen, president of the state oil company ­– maintained it had the capacity and resources to do.

The favourable settlement secured by the Mobil employees put Frigg operator Elf and Phillips under massive pressure. Where the NAF was concerned, the signals were unambiguous.

In other words, transferring Mobil’s pay system to the other companies was completely unacceptable because it would give operator employees a rise of 30-35 per cent.

Phillips and Elf therefore resisted the demands. However, their personnel wanted exactly the same pay system and conditions as their counterparts on Statfjord.

The result was another strike. Production ceased on both Ekofisk and Frigg on 27 October. After eight and two days respectively, the employers felt unable to hold out any longer.

With rises of more than 30 per cent, the OFS declared the pay struggle in the North Sea to be over. Further efforts would be devoted to reducing the retirement age and working hours.

The new union had shown that it was a power factor in Norwegian society, having won against the government, the oil companies and the NAF. It was bursting with self-confidence.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Ryggvik, Helge and Smith-Solbakken, Marie, Blod, svette og olje. Norsk Oljehistorie, volume 3, 1997: 259-266

On the offensive

The victorious pay campaign waged by the operator employees on Statfjord, Frigg and Ekofisk encouraged other oil workers to take up arms.

A number of Norwegian Seamen’s Union members were dissatisfied with the results achieved by their own organisation. They staged a legal strike in early November 1981, but were also met with compulsory arbitration.

That prompted drillers, roustabouts and rank-and-file maritime personnel to down tools illegally. The stoppage lasted 11 days without achieving any financial results.

Mass resignations hit the seamen’s union during the stoppage, with a new Union of Shipping Company Employees (ROF) formed. It acquired more than 1 000 members within a few weeks.

This newcomer applied for affiliation to the OFS, as did the newly formed independent Oil Drillers Union (OBF) for ex-members of Nopef.

The flood of new members to the OFS prompted a restructuring of the organisation. In the spring of 1982, the former  Collaboration Committee for Operator Unions became the Union of Operator Employees (OAF).

Together with the ROF and OBF, this body formed the new Federation of Offshore Workers Trade Unions – which retained the OFS abbreviation.

Many catering personnel, who had been split like the drillers between the Norwegian Oil and Energy Employees Association (Noemfo) and Nopef, also wanted affiliation with the OFS.

However, the latter was reluctant to accept additional groups. It was not until 17 March 1983 that the new Catering Workers Union (CAF) was admitted as the fourth OFS union.

This expansion of the OFS primarily reflected its success. Rather than subordinating itself to the income-policy collaboration between the LO, the NAF and the government, the organisation came across as an independent body which could take on the companies.

The oil workers were unwilling to submit to the accepted rules of play in a sector where the employers could be pressured to pay more, and the OFS was willing to breach the established income-policy framework.

Its tool was to shut down oil production on the Norwegian continental shelf completely. This small independent organisation with 4 000 members thereby became a power player and risk factor to be reckoned with.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Ryggvik, Helge and Smith-Solbakken, Marie, Blod, svette og olje. Norsk Oljehistorie, volume 3, 1997: 266-270.

Strikes and compulsory arbitration

Since its foundation, the OFS has been involved in a number of strikes (12 up 2004). With one exception, all have ended in compulsory arbitration.

The union has played the role of the rebel on the continental shelf – the one which has not been afraid to put muscle behind its demands.

Some of the labour disputes involving the OFS from 1986 to 1997 include:

  • 1986: catering employees demanded a 30 per cent pay increase in the collective bargaining round. The employers responded with a lockout. Observers speculated whether the government felt best served by seeing production shut down at a time of extremely low oil prices in order help drive these up.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Ryggvik, Helge and Smith-Solbakken, Marie, Blod, svette og olje. Norsk Oljehistorie, volume 3, 1997: 294-299
  • 5 April 1989: a notified political strike was cancelled after the Labour Court found it to be illegal.[REMOVE]Fotnote: no-nb digital newspaper, 346571-75.
  • 2 July 1990: the “brouhaha strike” launched by the OFS, starting with an illegal labour conflict – the first for nine years on Ekofisk. It followed the government’s decision to impose compulsory arbitration after only one day’s stoppage. Work on the helideck was obstructed so that helicopters were unable to land. The strike was called off on Thursday 5 July, and was declared illegal, as a contravention of the collective pay agreement, by the Labour Court on 13 July. It led to dismissals in Statoil, Smedvig and Phillips.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Radio news, Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), 17.30, 11 October 1994, and 19.30, 27 October 1994.
  • 11 October 1994: the OFS notified a stoppage in sympathy with strikers at Stavanger Offshore Services, who were pursuing internal pay demands. The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) took the OFS to the Labour Court and won its case. The union was ordered to resume work and to pay NOK 14 000 in costs. OFS members were back at work on 11 October, and the strike at Stavanger Offshore Services ended with a compromise on 27 October.
  • April 1996: the maintenance workers downed tools and the OFS initiated a sympathy strike which aimed to cripple 50 per cent of Norwegian offshore output. The Ekofisk Committee refused to support this stoppage on the grounds that this would damage the OFS. It was accused of strikebreaking and its members on the OFS executive committee, led by Harald Sjonfjell, were excluded from the OFS.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Radio news, Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), 07.30, 25 April 1996, and 16.30, 4 May 1996.

Strikes are legal in the Norwegian labour market. From a historical perspective, the working conditions and other terms secured by the OFS through striking have been legitimate. However, the “rich” offshore workers have never found it easy to win acceptance in public opinion.

The climate between employers and employees has improved since the industry’s beginnings. Neither the working environment nor employment conditions on the Norwegian continental shelf are any longer of a character which calls for unyielding confrontations between the two sides.

Norwegian offshore workers have better conditions than most occupational groups in Norway – to a large extent thanks to a constructive collaboration between employer organisations, unions and government.

Published 30. July 2019   •   Updated 30. July 2019
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