Nobody likes us, nobody likes us, nobody likes us, we don’t care! – Millwall FC
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) is not popular, and they don’t care. That their subsidized industry is in decline, they do not care. That their strike will cause £100 million at £1 billion damage, they don’t care. Their leaders instead demand your solidarity as you struggle to overcome their stalemate. No matter how miserable you are, what about their feelings? They only earn a salary 70% above the national average and they still have to pay for their own travel, well at least 25% of it. Shame on us for our insensitivity.
They and the other railway unions, on the other hand, are extremely effective in their work. This is to secure and maintain wages, benefits and job protection for their members. They go on strike because strikes work. People join the RMT, despite the Communist organizers and agitators.
But what does this have to do with offshore industries, fossil fuel producers drilling the North Sea? Although the RMT represents some platform and helpdesk workers, they are about as different from the RMT as you can get. They are represented by a professional body made up of various business leaders whose idea of activism is a very rigid letter of concern for the FT. When threatened with a windfall tax, they did not picket BEIS, but offered to host the minister at their annual event, while one of them felt that this wouldn’t make any difference. They have continued to work in earnest with the government on their offshore transition plan, even changing the name of their trading body to reflect this. They can be heard occasionally agreeing that the end of the industry is necessary to “address the climate emergency”, but not yet. This strategy is that of an elderly parent accepting a dialogue about a pillow on the face.
It was not an effective strategy. The industry has been hobbled by special taxes and regulations, while their payback for responsible cooperation with the government’s climate strategy was a one-off tax even more extreme than that suggested by the opposition. Meanwhile, their workers, the highly skilled hoodlums and thugs who take the offshore risks necessary to provide the resources that fuel our economy, have been deceived. Their own pay and benefits, which they could reasonably have expected to have been boosted by the massive increase in demand for their services, will instead partly fund a short-term publicity stunt by the government on the reduction household bills and subsidize renewable energy frameworks benefiting from the same price increases. In other words, if the tax increases anything, the most likely impact is a revision of investments and a sharp reduction in new drilling activity over the next few years. A double blow for shareholders and workers, and the public also in the longer term, with higher bills, both in homes and at the pump.
If the oil and gas operators behaved like the RMT, the government would be in serious trouble. There is no prospect that the UK will be able to substitute the resources it currently obtains from the North Sea from European networks or from global markets via ports. Having treated onshore operators with the same contempt, the UK has no backup fracking plan and only a few days supply of conventional gas reserves. An alternative energy system does not yet exist and will take decades to unfold. If a group like the RMT represented the North Sea, we might reasonably expect to see the taps turned off and the rigs closed. We would see industry leaders reminding us that we need these resources, and that their workers are energy heroes keeping the lights on, not climate criminals. They would be indifferent to condemnation and would deal with criticism with vigor. There was not much the government could do about it either. Replacing station staff, drivers and flagmen with agency staff is one thing, and they didn’t even plan for that; operating a drilling rig is more like landing the space shuttle.
This is not an argument for militancy – the consequences of conflict are ruinous for everyone, with lower living standards and capital flight. But a caveat that the government’s energy cakeiness and indifference to cooperation is prompting such results. If we need oil and gas for the low-carbon transition, then treat oil and gas as necessary, consistently and fairly, in line with other industries. Not as a convenient scapegoat in response to the tough latest headline. Meanwhile, if the industry is tired of being treated like a piggy bank run by enemies of the planet, it needs to be a lot less reasonable and a lot tougher in its dissent from big projects that won’t work. They should act like they matter, rather than meekly accepting submission. They must be publicly uncooperative and difficult with officials and politicians who say one thing and do another, rather than letting them off the hook.
Few people will love them for it, but they and their workers can get something better than a pillow as a result.
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The columns are the author’s own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.