How North Sea oil workers organised

The explosion on the Piper Alpha oil rig on 6 July 1988, in which 167 oil workers died, became the catalyst for a surge of rank-and-file workers’ organisation in the British sector of the North Sea oil field.

With the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster approaching, People & Nature today publishes an interview with Neil Rothnie, a socialist activist who after Piper Alpha founded Blowout, a rank-and-file oil workers’ newspaper.

During a wave of strikes and occupations that followed the disaster, oil workers rejected conventional trade union methods and formed the Oil Industry Liason Committee (OILC), an organisation outside – and prepared to cross swords with – traditional trade union structures. Rothnie recalls these actions, and the impact they had both on workers’ lives and the way that the labour movement evolved.

Blowout is one of the best examples of a paper that gave voice to a workers’ movement from the grass roots up. For those interested in the history of labour movements in the energy sector, we have posted PDF versions of the first eight issues.

Readers who share my interest in how society will make the transition away from fossil fuels may wonder how labour movements among workers who produce fossil fuels, and social movements in coal and oil communities, fit into this. My view is: they are right at the centre of it.

The development of the coal industry from the 19th century, and the oil industry from the early 20th, was driven by big capital in a way that took as 800px-Oil_platform_in_the_North_SeaProslittle account as possible of workers’ and communities’ interests. Capital exploited those workers, damaged those communities, and profited from oil wars, long before the 1970s, when earth scientists first found compelling evidence that excessive fossil fuel consumption would cause global warming and resulting multiple dangers for human communities. The fossil fuel economy’s indifference to the suffering of future generations is essentially an extension of its callousness in the here and now.

Energy workers, and communities in which coal and oil are produced, have developed a body of experience in dealing with the fossil-fuel-based energy system and the companies that lord over it. This experience is one of the essential foundations on which to develop a transition away from that system. These workers, and these communities, must surely play a key role in the discussion about how such a transition should be achieved (an issue about which I’ve written before, e.g. here and here). That is the reason that I am so pleased to publish Neil Rothnie’s interview and the archive of Blowout’s earliest issues. GL

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