Tugmen at the oil port of Sullom Voe, in Shetland, have overwhelmingly voted in favour of industrial action.
The 98% ballot in favour of action, which could include a strike, is the latest chapter in an increasingly bitter dispute between Shetland Islands Council and the 48 men crewing the tugs.
The important oil port, which serves the BP-operated Sullom Voe oil terminal, could be without tug cover by the end of this month should last-ditch attempts to resolve the dispute over staff reduction as well as terms and conditions fail.
The council is seeking to save money in a bid to maintain its income from operating the port as oil throughput declines.
In August it opened a 90-day consultation on reducing the number of tugmen from 48 to 32, longer working hours and a new ‘on-call’ system when crews are not on board.
Regional organiser for the union Unite, John Taylor, has now called on the council to withdraw the consultation paper, a document union members have described as an attempt to divide their unity, and return to the negotiating table.
He said 98% of the membership have voted for industrial action, and that could be anything from an overtime ban to strike action.
“We are still hopeful that we can get a resolution to the situation, but we could start some form of industrial action within the next two weeks,” Mr Taylor said.
In a statement, Shetland Islands Council said that management was taking the 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,” the statement issued jointly by chief executive Alistair Buchan and chairman of the harbour board, councillor Robert Henderson said.
It is now up to the local union membership to decide what form of industrial action they want to take. A meeting among Unite members is due later this week. Local union members said they were delighted with the endorsement and expressed the hope it would lead to new talks with senior council managers, including the newly-appointed director of infrastructure services Phil Crossland.
“If the council withdraws the consultation document that would open up a window of opportunity for commonsense talks to take place,” one member said.
Union members were appalled by the content of the consultation paper which they say was “nothing more than a 90-day notice to terminate” the men’s contracts.
The 48 tugmen have all returned the document to the council saying they will not accept the new terms and conditions, which effectively leaves the port without tug cover as of November 1.
The local union members have put forward their own proposals to reduce the number of people working on the tugs while maintaining a safe harbour, but feel they have not been listened to.
They say that apart from the new terms of conditions they take issue with a whole raft of topics such as port safety, the performance of the new tugs, and the overall professionalism of the port operation.