Sullom Voe tugmen have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action in response to Shetland Islands Council’s decision to impose job cuts and new working practices.
The ballot of 48 tug members of the union Unite returned a 94 per cent vote in favour of action. Just three of the 47 men who completed their ballot papers wanted to restrict the protest to action short of stoppage.
The men are in the process of arranging a meeting for later this week to decide what course their action will take, ranging from an overtime ban, a half-hour stoppage or a full walkout. Without tug cover the oil port would be closed to all tanker shipments and prolonged action would eventually bring oil production to a standstill.
Unite’s regional organiser John Taylor called on the local authority to immediately withdraw its 90-days’ notice to impose new contracts and return to the negotiating table to head off industrial action. He said the tugmen had been forced down the road of action and the council only had itself to blame.
In a short statement this afternoon the council’s harbour board chairman Robert Henderson and chief executive Alistair Buchan said: “We acknowledge the result of the ballot and obviously take this matter very seriously.
“We are disappointed that it has reached this point but, as we have stated, we will continue to negotiate to find solutions and will strive to reach agreement, as we always have.”
Mr Taylor called on the 22 councillors to seek a meeting with local tug representatives to hear for themselves their point of view.
One of the proposals put forward by the tug union to help cut costs is to stop operating Sullom Voe as a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week port, which it only needed to be in the past when tanker traffic was far higher. However, that has not been given proper consideration.
Mr Taylor said: “What everyone seems to want is a gold-standard service but they are not prepared to pay for it.”
He said an approach to oil terminal operators BP to also join in talks about the future of the port had been declined by the oil company.
The tug workforce is the last major obstacle to the cost-cutting Ports for the Future project which is intended to drive down costs and jobs among the marine-related workforce at Sella Ness.
The port controllers, pilots and launch crews have been reorganised but it was always known that the former Shetland Towage tug men were likely to be the toughest nut to crack, having already been downsized in previous shake-ups.
The council wants to cut numbers from 48 to 32 and change working practices with a view to eventually going down from a four-tug to three-tug operation when handling tankers. Failure to reach an agreement through negotiation led the council to issue a 90-day consultation before imposing the new arrangements.
The “consultation” period ends on 31st October, effectively leaving the council and Sullom Voe in what Mr Taylor called “the silly situation” of not having a contracted tug workforce from 1st November unless the men change their minds and accept their new contracts.