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Buchan joins talks to avert tugmen strike

A THREAT to close the Shetland oil port of Sullom Voe has been averted for at least one month after 11th hour talks between unions and the local authority on Wednesday lunchtime.

This month the 48 tugmen employed by Shetland Islands Council voted to take industrial action that would have shut the port next week after the authority tried to impose jobs cuts and new working conditions to save money.

However on Wednesday union officials spoke with SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan and the newly appointed director of infrastructure Phil Crossland and both sides agreed to extend discussions for 28 days.

Mr Buchan said he had held back from getting involved in the negotiations until this point, but was pleased with the outcome of the latest talks.

“We are committed to open and constructive discussions and we will be working hard over the next 28 days to reach an agreement. It would be in no one’s interest in my view to end up with industrial action,” he said.

In August the council had imposed a 90 day consultation on cutting 16 tugmen’s jobs, with remaining staff working longer shifts with a new ‘on call’ system.

The move angered the tugmen, who voted 98 per cent in favour of industrial action to fight the proposal. This week they agreed that action would include measures that would have closed the port to all tanker traffic from 6 October.

The tugmen want to be involved directly in talks about the future of the port, which is looking to save money as throughput declines with the reduction in North Sea oil production.

However the oil industry does not want involvement in such negotiations and the council is insistent on saving money and continuing to generate an annual income of £4 million from the commercial operation.

The port’s main source of revenue is now from the Loch Rannoch shuttle tanker that brings oil from BP’s Schiehallion field west of Shetland to the BP-operated oil terminal at Sullom Voe.

After Wednesday’s talks John Taylor, the Aberdeen-based regional organiser for the tugmen’s union Unite, said negotiations would recommence on Thursday with local shop stewards, and he would travel to Shetland on Monday to take them further.

“Hopefully this will create an environment where both sides can sit around the table and find a solution to a problem,” he said.

Mr Taylor pointed out that the oil industry wanted to maintain a port which was open all the time, while oil traffic was on the decline. “If there is only one ship coming in every year you still need four tugs to service that ship,” he said.

He said: “We believe we could operate a system if everyone works properly with a reduction of 12 people, and we are open to any suggestions about shift patterns.

“But there is no point in sitting around a table and saying we have to save ‘x’ amount of money because preconditions are there.

“So I am hoping there are open and fruitful discussions and we can get a situation which will benefit all parties, because if it only benefits one side, whether that is the workforce or the council, it is doomed to failure.”