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New tug deal could save £750,000

TUG crews at Shetland’s Sullom Voe oil terminal vote on Monday on a new package that should save the port around £750,000.

Last month an all out strike was on the cards after two years of talks to save £1 million by cutting 16 jobs and introducing a new shift pattern ended with an overwhelming vote for industrial action.

However a new manager with a new approach was brought in to resolve the dispute, and now the 48 tugmen in the local branch of trade union Unite are expected to accept the latest offer on the table next week.

Under the new deal 12 men will take voluntary redundancy and the remaining 36 will retain a three shift system running three tugs with a fourth tug being operated by a stand by crew on an overtime basis.

Branch chairman John Halcrow said a deal could have been struck years ago when the council came up with a set of proposals to save money at the oil port, which has seen a huge decline in traffic since throughput peaked in 1985.

Six years ago Shetland Islands Council had proposed saving £863,000 with new working arrangements for everyone working at the port. However talks during the past two years have gone sour and generated considerable bad feeling between staff and management.

In the past year deals have been struck with pilots and pilot launch crews that have saved the council around £600,000, but not without rancour. If Unite vote in favour of this deal on Monday, the total savings will be £1.35 million.

Talks with the tug crews became bogged down when the council negotiating team, led by former infrastructure director Gordon Greenhill, won the backing of councillors to impose a new system which the union described as “unworkable”.

Last month Mr Greenhill was replaced by Phil Crossland who led the council negotiating team alongside former NHS Shetland chief executive Sandra Laurenson, currently employed as a consultant, and chief executive Alistair Buchan.

On Thursday the SIC’s executive committee agreed to withdraw a 90 day notice to terminate the tugmen’s contract and the union dropped its threat of strike action.

Mr Halcrow said: “We have always been of the view that a workable solution was there but discussions didn’t seem to be going anywhere over two years.

“In the last few weeks there’s been a change in the approach of the council which we very much welcome and I can only applaud the manner in which this has been done.

“It was never our intention to have to use the threat of strike action because we recognise how damaging a strike would be, but the situation we were dealing with had created that threat. It’s encouraging that it never came to that and now we can look positively to the future.”

Mr Crossland said: “I am delighted that we have reached an amicable resolution to this problem, which will mean the port remains open for business as usual.”

Operating the oil port has been a major earner for Shetland Islands Council since it opened in 1979, but the reduction in North Sea production has seen a dramatic decline in income.

At its peak the port employed 97 tugmen, a figure now to be reduced by almost two thirds.

The port needs to remain competitive to win lucrative contracts with BP to continue receiving deliveries from its main source of income, the Schiehallion field west of the isles. The oil company is looking at redeveloping the field and potentially switching to export direct to Scotland.

At the same time the oil industry needs a functioning port at Sullom Voe, which is now set to stay in operation until 2050 after BP announced the next phase of its Clair field would come on stream in the next few years.