THE NEXT Northern Isles lifeline ferry contract should be under public ownership instead of going out to tender, according to the RMT.
The trade union has launched a 'Nationalise NorthLink Ferries' e-petition, which marks the start of a campaign which aims to give the lifeline service a similar status to CalMac's west coast service, but without going through a tendering process.
The union's regional organiser Gordon Martin said lifeline services should not be run for profit and therefore should be in public ownership.
He said the e-petition addressed to Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf was part of the union's involvement in the current review of Scottish Government ferry procurement policy.
In February, the minister extended the current ferry contract - run by Serco NorthLink – into 2019 to allow time to consider whether under certain circumstances public ferry services could be awarded to an in-house operator without the need for a tendering process under European regulations.
Martin said the RMT would widen its campaign for nationalising the Orkney and Shetland lifeline service including hosting a number of public meetings in the Northern Isles.
"At the moment it is unclear how the review is going to pan out, but we are pushing for it to be brought in-house, using a 'Teckal' exemption from EU competition and state aid laws," Martin said.
He added that a nationalised service could bring benefits for island communities and the taxpayer, such as lower fares and more frequent sailings.
The government said it could not "pre-judge" the outcome of the policy review.
A Transport Scotland spokesman added: "However, should it conclude that it would be possible to apply the Teckal exemption and meet state aid rules then we would be minded to provide ferry services through an in-house operator, taking account of the communities they serve.
"This would, of course, be subject to wider policy and value for money implications, as well as the views of those communities."
A progress report on the ongoing review is expected to be published this autumn.In their petition the trade union, which has more than 100 members on board the NorthLink vessels, said the current £243 million, six-year contract was not good value for the taxpayer.
The union added: "The Scottish Government has also confirmed that a taxpayer subsidised fares scheme, Road Equivalent tariff (RET) will be introduced on Northern Isles ferry routes routes in 2018, adding up to £4m per year in public subsidy.
"RET was rolled out on the larger, publicly operated Clyde and Hebrides (CHFS) contract in October 2015, driving growth in passenger and vehicle numbers on the lifeline ferry network serving communities and businesses off Scotland's west coast.
"A major programme of investment in new vessels and harbour infrastructure is also planned on the current £1 billion CHFS contract, which was awarded in May 2016 to CalMac for an eight year period.
"We want the best for passengers, staff, communities, businesses and taxpayers from Northern Isles Ferry Services and the only way to achieve that is to Nationalise NorthLink."
Serco NorthLink Ferries won the subsidised lifeline ferry contract from NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries, a joint venture between Caledonian MacBrayne and the RBS Group, in 2012. Before 2002, the service was operated by P&O Scottish ferries.