According to the first of its statutes, the object of the OFS was “to create closer collaboration between the unions in the operator companies on the Norwegian continental shelf in order to coordinate issues of common interest in relation to the government and other interested parties”.
Although the unions had joined forces in a cooperating committee, they continued to exist as independent bodies and the links between them were relatively loose. Negotiations over pay and conditions were conducted within each company. The other union for oil company workers, the Norwegian Oil and Petrochemical Workers Union (Nopef) was established on 31 January 1977 as part of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO).
Fight for negotiating rights
Inflation was high in Norway during the late 1970s, and the growth in prices and costs far exceeded that in competitor nations. The Labour government headed by Odvar Nordli regarded this trend as a threat to the Norwegian economy, and imposed a pay settlement by law in 1978. That was replaced by a provisional law on income control in 1979. This provided a small opening for pay negotiations, but only for national organisations. The Eanof, the Ekofisk Committee and the SAF all lacked that status, and were accordingly unable to negotiate or submit pay claims.
The OFS accepted the consequences of the Act. New statutes were adopted in the autumn of 1979 after a membership ballot. The main goal now was to fight for recognition as a national union with the right to negotiate pay deals. These efforts were opposed both by the Labour government and by the LO. But the OLF was willing to fight. The issue was raised with minister Sissel Rønbeck and her consumer and administration ministry, which was responsible for enforcing the law, but no response was received from that quarter.
During January 1980, OFS members staged a two-day “political” strike on Ekofisk, Frigg and Statfjord. This lasted for six hours on each field. A major stoppage was threatened unless the union was recognised, and non-socialist politicians supported this demand. On 18 January, two days before the big shutdown was to begin, the ministry caved in and recognised the OFS as a national union with the right to negotiate. This approval was important. The organisation could now pursue collective bargaining with operators Elf, Phillips and Mobil.
Finn Husberg, a chief engineer and operator on Frigg as well as a member of Eanof and the OFS, was involved in the process. “We achieved a masterstroke when the OFS secured negotiating rights. People believed it was a mistake by the minister concerned. The employers were frustrated that we managed it.” In 1980, the OFS had less than 1 000 members.
After its victory, the OFS demanded immediate talks with the operators over a new agreement on pay and conditions. The three oil companies and the union seated themselves around the negotiating table, but were a long way apart. With the operators refusing to concede a separate pay deal, the stage was set for another strike.
All oil and gas production on the Norwegian continental shelf ceased for 10 days from 3 July 1980. On Frigg, output stopped from the Norwegian part of the field but continued uninterruptedly on the British side. Gas was delivered to the UK as normal. The strike was legal, but the government intervened after 10 days to impose compulsory arbitration. Under Norwegian law, this meant that the strikers had to return to work. The arbitration panel reported on 16 October, and found for the OLF on a significant point. It secured its first main agreement on pay and conditions. This required the development of common working hours and shift patterns, while the OLF was promised genuine pay talks over the coming year. However, the union’s demand for a common pay system was not conceded.
“At that time, pay disputes were largely settled by compulsory arbitration,” recalls Husberg when talking about the strikes in the 1980s. “And we undoubtedly felt that the employers had the upper hand.”
He believes that the unions and Elf as operator had a good relationship. “After conflicts and negotiations, matters were cleared up. And then it was back to normal, with no bitter feelings. That’s an important point. The union’s always had a good dialogue with the Elf management.
In his view, it was important that the field also continued to produce during conflicts. “Frigg has only once been shut down completely because of disputes and strikes on the NCS. It lies on the median line between Norway and the UK, and the British workers haven’t downed tools. Eanof had a good dialogue with the Elf management, and production on the UK side became our negotiating card. At the same time, Eanof believed that third parties who were not involved in the conflict should suffer as little harm as possible. A total production shutdown on Frigg would have hit deliveries from other fields on the UK side which sent their gas through the Frigg pipelines. The OFS was very unhappy that every time a conflict arose, Frigg continue to deliver gas to the UK from the British side of the field.
Discontent with pay levels on the NCS remained high, with many workers particularly angry at the way pay policies differed between the three companies. Phillips and Elf operated a system where job category and seniority determined the level of pay, while Mobile based its approach on a minimum salary with personal supplements. The OFS wanted to place the highest-paid Mobil employees in the Elf/Phillips deal, and thereby gain the benefits from both solutions. It fought strongly for a common pay system, and new strikes were staged in the autumn of 1981. On this occasion, they were illegal.
Negotiations between the parties collapsed, and the chief state mediator, the minister and the government were brought in. Mobil suddenly broke ranks with the other oil companies and gave way on the demands. Elf and Eanof were close to agreement, but the latter stayed loyal to the Ekofisk Committee after Mobil surrendered. Both Ekofisk and the Norwegian share of Frigg were again at a standstill on 27 October. Production on the UK side stayed at full flow. After two days, Elf yielded to the workers’ demands. The strike also ended on Ekofisk eight days later. The offshore workforce had secured acceptance for its demands. A fantastic pay increase was awarded. Through its stoppages, the OFS had demonstrated that it was a unified organisation and a power in the land.
The 1981 pay settlement had a number of consequences. According to the government, the oil companies had been excessively generous. The new Conservative government under Kåre Willoch call eight operator companies to talks in December. Illegal strikes and unrestrained pay rises had to stop. Willoch read out a declaration which made it clear that if the companies failed to control the growth in pay, they would have to suffer the consequences. The government had the potential to impose sanctions through the licensing and tax system – a position subsequently termed the “Willoch doctrine”.
As a consequence of this doctrine, an alliance emerged between the government and the companies. The OFS also came within the LO’s sphere of influence during the next round of pay talks. Independent initiatives were no more. The pay policy agenda was now set by the LO and the Norwegian Employers Confederation (NAF – now the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise). From 1982, compulsory arbitration became an almost annual affair. Given the government’s policies, offshore employees emerged with little from the arbitration process.
New umbrella organisation
After the victories in 1980 and 1981, other groups showed an interest in the OFS. Its statutes were amended in February 1982 after an extraordinary national congress had opened the way for other offshore workers to join. The OFS was no longer confined to operator employees, but became an umbrella organisation. It changed its name to the Federation of Offshore Workers Trade Unions, with the same abbreviation. Member organisations were the Union of Operator Employees (OAF), the Union of Shipping Company Oil Workers (ROF), the Catering Workers Union (CAF) and the Oil Drillers Union (OBF).
This organisational structure ultimately proved too bureaucratic, with the various subordinate unions insufficiently coordinated. They were dissolved at the OFS congress in 1987, with the branches and individuals becoming members instead. Statute 2.1 reads: “Membership of the OFS can be extended to unions/branches which are party-political neutral and independent, and which organise workers in the offshore oil business or directly associated activities. Individuals can be direct members of the OFS if no union/branch has been established in their company”.
Part of the YS
The OFS became the 20th member of the Confederation of Vocational Unions (YS) in March 1997. In a ballot, 91.75 per cent of the membership voted in favour and only 7.65 per cent against. Those in favour maintained that joining the YS would provide even better protection of their interests, both on land and offshore.
Despite the huge majority in favour, the issue was much-debated internally in the OFS. “There was a lot of discussion over whether we should seek affiliation with one of the major blocs,” reports Husberg. “But we nevertheless applied for membership, and that created some bad feeling in the organisation. A number of members wanted to join the LO, but the majority favoured the YS and that’s what happened.”
The OFS voluntarily relinquished its main agreement from 1981. Together with the negotiating committee in the YS, representatives from the union began talks on a new deal. The Ekofisk Committee refused to join the YS, but initiated a collaboration with Nopef from the 1997 pay agreement.
At an extraordinary congress on 31 August 2005, the OFS changed its name to the Norwegian Union of Energy Workers (Safe). Covering workers in the energy sector both offshore and at sea, it currently has some 7 000 members.