The ABC union – from outsider to insider

person Trude Meland, Norwegian Petroleum Museum
Amoco employees opted to establish a “house” or “enterprise” union when Valhall came on stream in 1983. But a later decision to join the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) gave rise to a protracted dispute with its former partners.
— ABC union sticker. Photo: Shadé Barka Martins/Norwegian Petroleum Museum
© Norsk Oljemuseum

This Amoco Company Union (Amoco Bedrifts Club – ABC) was organised on the model of similar organisations on the Ekofisk, Frigg and Statfjord fields. None of these new bodies were part of Norway’s established union structure, and all were independent of the main national labour confederations. The emergence of such independent associations represented a special feature of labour relations in the Norwegian petroleum sector during its early years.

As time passed, the ABC became part of a larger combine called the Federation of Offshore Workers Trade Unions (OFS). But developments in Norwegian labour organisation meant this grouping eventually became too small. The OFS ceased to be an independent union without political affiliations and joined by Confederation of Vocational Unions (YS). But the ABC refused to accept that move, and its “divorce” from the OFS eventually had to be settled by the Supreme Court.

To see how and why the ABC was created, how it existed outside Norway’s “corporative” union structure through the OFS, and how it ultimately capitulated to that system, Norwegian labour relations in the early years of the oil industry need to be understood.

Norway in the 1960s

ABC – fra husforening til LO, arbeidsliv,
Photo: Henry Munkjord/Norwegian Petroleum Museum

The first licence awards on the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS) were dominated by Anglo-American operators, suppliers, experts and foremen whose attitudes were rooted in oil company traditions and multinational forms of organisation. Offshore operations in Norway during the 1960s were relatively fenced in and isolated, making them a small enclave among the nation’s industries. Personnel were confined to direct company employees, and exploration provided few jobs – just 500 in 1969.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Gunnarsen, Harald, Fagforeninga som ikkje let seg temje , Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Bergen, 2012, p 72.

The international oil industry in the 1970s had authoritarian and hierarchical features which seemingly shoved aside Norway’s corporative system and its greater worker co-determination. With attitudes and methods derived from multinational operations, the oil companies in general had little time for Norwegian union traditions and collective organisation. The biggest of these enterprises were the Seven Sisters – Standard Oil of New Jersey (Esso), British Petroleum, Royal Dutch-Shell, Gulf Oil, Texaco, Standard Oil of California (Chevron) and Standard Oil of New York (Mobil). They had succeeded in concentrating great power in their hands, and by and large imposed their own interests and working methods – with a centralised and rigid management system, where decisions down to a detailed level were taken centrally.

In Norway, the companies were faced with demands that offshore activities should be conducted from Norwegian soil through national subsidiaries. But this did not affect theory tight reporting structures to parent-company management. Although Amoco was not among the Seven Sisters, its systems were the same and the freedom given to local subsidiaries was limited.

Work procedures were characterised by standardisation in terms of both technology and organisation. The US companies were managed on a top-down model. Their activities were also marked by an extensive division of labour based on a whole network of specialised contractors. While the operator company handled certain key functions, more labour-intensive jobs were contracted out. The result was a complex and diversified corporate structure.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Gunnarsen, Harald, Fagforeninga som ikkje let seg temje , Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Bergen, 2012, p 75. That in turn undermined cohesion and mutual support. These conglomerations of companies and organisational patterns were impenetrable and fragmented, which limited the sense of solidarity between occupational groups.

Conflicts emerged at an early stage between the oil industry and Norway’s work culture. The foreign operators regarded the management authority and commercial freedom as sacrosanct, and were antagonistic to unionisation and co-determination. That also applied to Amoco, one of the first international oil companies to establish itself in Norway.

The house unions

Much of the activity on the NCS was dominated by the house union model during the early 1970s, and Norway’s established labour organisation were scarcely present.

The Ekofisk Committee was founded as early as 1973 by Phillips Petroleum, followed by the Statfjord Workers Union (SaF) at fellow US oil company Mobil and the Elf Aquitaine Norge Offshore Union (Eanof) for employees of this French operator. Initially, the Ekofisk Committee was not an independent organisation but what the Americans call a “company” or “sweet” union. Phillips Petroleum Company Norway proposed a representative body for its 200 or so employees on the field to handle more formal relations between management and workers.

The aim was to establish a committee which the company could deal with – within the confines of what it found acceptable. Phillips accepted no restrictions on management authority, and accordingly established the sort of structure it was used to.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Surprisingly, few objections were raised to this proposal and the Phillips Petroleum Company Norway Employee Committee (PPCNEC) was accordingly launched.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Gunnarsen, Harald, Fagforeninga som ikkje let seg temje , Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Bergen, 2012, p 69.

Management had a dual agenda with the project – to secure a reasonably loyal set of employee representatives which it could rely on, and to exclude established unions in order to avoid interference from “outside third parties”. The company was willing to discuss pay and to provide support on tax issues, but the house union got nowhere over issues related to the working environment, working hours or safety. But developments did not go the way Phillips had envisaged and wanted. The house union began to oppose management at an early stage, and started work later the same year to build an independent organisation.

Without affiliation either to the company or a broader labour federation, this Ekofisk Committee proved to be ready to strike and act freely on behalf of oil workers.


ABC – fra husforening til LO, arbeidsliv,
OFS changed its name from Operatørfagforeningen Fellessammenslutning to Oljearbeidernes Fellessammenslutning in 1980.

After having tried out loose alliances with several other unions, the Ekofisk Committee began to look to the other house unions in Mobil and Elf. The three decided in 1977 to establish a collaborative body to provide a forum where their officials could meet and exchange opinions and views. This initially had no decision-making authority or rules. Late that year, however, more binding and formal statutes were adopted and the association was named the Collaboration Committee for Operator Unions (OFS). This was a free-standing organisation without affiliation to any national labour federation – indeed, it was established almost expressly to act as a counterweight to the LO.

Its member unions did not merge, and continued to negotiate separately with their respective employers. Pay and conditions accordingly varied considerably from company to company.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Gunnarsen, Harald, Fagforeninga som ikkje let seg temje , Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Bergen, 2012, p 93. After expanding steadily, the OFS celebrated a milestone in 1980 when it acquired the status of a nationwide employee association. That established it as a tough competitor to the Norwegian Oil and Petrochemical Workers Union (Nopef), which had been created by the LO in 1977 to represent workers in the new offshore industry.

A fundamental difference between the OFS and Norway’s established union movement was its mode of action, based on grass-roots activism and a willingness to down tools. The latter had been displayed at the first opportunity, when stoppages were staged on Statfjord during 1981 in contravention on Norwegian labour law. These were the first in a long series of such actions. And the willingness to act tough turned out to be rewarding, with rises of 30-35 per cent secured in the 1981 pay settlement.

That victory was a result not only of OFS activism, but also of weak organisation by the employers. As mentioned above, the ideology of the latter was to be free and untrammelled. They were opposed in principle to all government intervention and overriding organisation. A collaboration body certainly existed, but it was not binding and had no affiliation with a national employer federation.

The Norwegian Operator Companies Association had six members – Norway’s Statoil, Norsk Hydro and Saga Petroleum as well as Phillips, Mobil and Elf. But it did not negotiate on behalf of these companies, and pay and conditions were regulated through agreements at local level. Following the illegal strikes on Statfjord, Mobil yielded and offered its employees a generous pay rise. And the other companies had to follow suit. Pay was only a small part of operator costs, after all – a production shutdown was considerably more expensive. Employers, the LO and the government began to view the OFS as a threat to the balance of power in Norway’s labour market. The other organisations in this arena largely abided by the corporative system and accepted the government’s economic parameters.

Although the OFS was outside the established system, it had had initially enjoyed much public sympathy. That changed after the 1981 pay settlement, when its members were increasingly disparaged as “wage aristocrats”. But the rises achieved by the outsiders also created frustration among workers organised by the LO, and sparked mass resignations. The OFS had proved a problem for the whole system for pay determination in Norway. To overcome this, the government launched a wholesale “Norwegianisation” of the oil sector.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Sejersted, 2002, p 197.


Norway’s oil industry went through a process from the early 1980s whereby rules more in accordance with general Norwegian working practices were gradually imposed on its players. That involved a “normalisation” of pay deals and working conditions in the companies, while encouraging the development of a simplified and far less fragmented structure for both employer and employee organisation.

Only two dominant unions are left in the oil industry today –the Norwegian Union of Industry and Energy Workers (IndustryEnergy) in the LO and the Norwegian Union of Energy Workers (Safe) as part of the YS. On the other side of the table, foreign and domestic oil companies have coordinated their interests through the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association.

The result is that at the oil industry no longer represents a kind of enclave in national society, but has become an integrated and important part of the Norwegian social model. With its uncompromising approach, the OFS proved able to cause maximum pain by shutting down all offshore production at short notice. That gave it more power than its size might suggest. Following the 1981 pay settlement, the minority Conservative government headed by Kåre Willoch was not primarily concerned about income trends in the North Sea as such. His worry lay with their knock-on effect for mainland industry.

The same party which had earlier criticised corporatist tendencies in Norway now began to argue that the oil companies had to adapt to domestic labour market traditions. Operators were instructed to amend their pay policies and join an employer association. Failure to do so would have consequences for future licence awards, tax regulations and the Labour Disputes Act. This became known as the “Willoch doctrine”.

And the oil companies fell into line, converting the former Norwegian Operator Companies Association into the Norwegian Operator Companies Employers Association (Noaf) – forerunner of today’s Norwegian Oil and Gas – and joining the Norwegian Employers Confederation (NAF).

While the unions had hitherto been able to play off the companies against each other, an alliance between the latter and the government now removed such opportunities. The OFS thereby lost its most important card.

Umbrella organisation

The restructuring on the employer side also prompted changes in the OFS. This had been a non-bureaucratic organisation with little hierarchy and closeness between grass roots and leaders.

ABC – fra husforening til LO, arbeidsliv,
OFS gradually gathered more unions under its umbrella.

However, its big victory over the 1981 settlement had prompted a growing number of associations and occupational groups to seek membership. Combined with the government’s curbs, this led in 1982 to an extraordinary national conference which decided that the OFS should be a federation for all North Sea workers – not just operator employees.

New statutes were adopted, and the name was changed to the Federation of Offshore Workers Trade Unions – while retaining the Norwegian abbreviation of OFS. The three former house unions for operator personnel then joined forces as the Union of Operator Employees (OAF), one of four member organisations in the OFS.

Three new bodies were admitted – the Union of Shipping Company Employees (ROF), the Oil Drillers Union (OBF) and the Catering Workers Union (CAF).

But the OFS centrally continued to exercise little power over the individual unions, and each of the latter formulated its own pay demands and pursued its own negotiations.

During the first few years, solidarity between the four OFS members was relatively high even if tensions existed.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Gunnarsen, Harald, Fagforeninga som ikkje let seg temje , Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Bergen, 2012, p 116. The primary aim was now to drive the LO and the YS out of the NCS.

ABC established and joins the OFS

Fagforening og fusjonen, forsidebilde, økonomi, Nye endringer – Offshore People Strategy og GO4F
The ABC logo

The Amoco union was created on 14 February 1983 as a house association for all employees in the oil company. It applied to join the OAF in March, and was accepted a month later.

Some difficult years for the OFS had followed the 1981 success. Real pay for most offshore workers declined over the following decade, and each income settlement was imposed by law through compulsory arbitration except in 1987.

Certain groups, such as the catering workers, did better than others, but they still lagged well behind operator company employees.

Although the OFS continued to pursue an activist and aggressive pay strategy, it failed to outperform the LO unions. Frustration spread among contractor personnel, whose primary demand was harmonisation of earnings.

Both the economic parameters and the form of pay settlements were determined by the LO and the NAF in league with the government. The Willoch doctrine and the frequent recourse to compulsory arbitration had weakened the OFS.

The latter complained that genuine negotiations in the North Sea were impossible. But it kept its autonomy and grass-roots orientation, and came across as politically independent and decentralised.

Membership of Noaf had expanded from the 12 original operators through the addition of four catering contractors and six drilling companies, which strengthened its position. To rationalise a profusion of pay deals, the employers proposed in the autumn of 1985 to establish a single agreement for production, catering and drilling. But the unions rejected this. The OFS wanted negotiations to be conducted on a union-by-union basis, with no coordination between them. At the same time, however, it defined some common demands.

These involved a reduction in the retirement age from 67 to 55, a contraction in weekly working hours from 55 to 33.6, increased maternity leave and equal pay for equal work. But even while calling for pay harmonisation, which cut across unions and occupational categories, the federation remained committed to independent negotiations.

Noaf stuck to its guns, and made it clear ahead of the pay talks in 1986 that agreements and negotiations would be coordinated. A solidarity approach would be taken, with one union’s settlement influencing the others.

Coordinated negotiations were unacceptable to the OFS. Each union was to pursue its demands in isolation.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Some exceptions were made when the federation presented joint demands on behalf of all the unions for earlier retirement, shorter working hours and pay harmonisation. But the actual talks were separate.

The CAF was the first to negotiate, and pressed for full pay harmonisation with other offshore employees. This was rejected by the employers, and the union downed tools on 6 April 1986. Despite some reluctance, the other OFS members loyally took their own members out in sympathy. For its part, Noaf was unable to accept the demand and imposed a lock-out on all members of both the OFS and Nopef on all fixed Norwegian production platforms.

The whole workforce was accordingly in conflict before the other unions had even begun talks. All NCS output accordingly ceased, prompting the government to impose compulsory arbitration through the National Wages Board.

This conflict was convenient for both government and companies, since oil prices had fallen dramatically over the previous year.

The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) was pressing Norway to cut production, and the USA was also giving clear signals that output restrictions would be desirable to help boost prices. In other words, the government was in no hurry to see the conflict resolved, and the strike/lock-out dragged on. The confrontation was expensive for the OFS, and had to be halted one way or another.

The employers did not look like budging. To twist arms and preferably compel the government to turn to the Wages Board, the OFS took out all the Norwegian workers on Frigg. That included all those working on the UK side of the Anglo-Norwegian gas field, and halted all production from it. This had the desired effect.

The pressure became too great for the government, which feared the consequences for Norway’s credibility as a gas supplier. After two weeks, it presented a Bill on compulsory arbitration and work immediately resumed. The CAF secured none of its demands, and the parameters from the LO/NAF settlement were accepted.

This conflict demonstrated that its decentralised decision-making structure gave the OFS insufficient control, and the federation’s organisation was debated at the 1986 conference. A way to end internal conflicts had to be found, and a restructuring led to the abolition of the various subordinate unions. Each workplace branch (“club”) became a direct member.

The OFS thereby became a single union responsible for a main pay agreement and determining the use of strike funds. That power had previously rested with the subordinate unions.

This change was regarded as an institutional breakthrough, and as the end product of the Norwegianisation process and the government-initiated disciplining of the oil workers. The troublemakers had been tamed – it was thought.

The 1990s

On a world basis, industry in 1990 was characterised by increased globalisation, market liberalism, outsourcing of services, project-based working and use of contractors.

Norway faced an economic crisis and its highest level of unemployment since 1945. Rising job losses in the late 1980s imposed economic adjustments after the borrowing frenzy of the mid-decade and the oil price slump of 1986.

A new consensus on roles in the labour market was established. Employers and unions would ensure moderate pay settlements, while financial policy would be used to keep down unemployment. After two years of statutory incomes policy in 1988-89, when pay rises were curbed by law, the rate of inflation had been slowed and free pay bargaining was restored.

For its part, the LO had no desire to return to the unfortunate developments of the previous decade and wanted the moderation approach to be retained.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Per Kleppe, Fafo report, Samfunnskontrakt. Solidaritetsalternativet fortid og framtid , 1999. But the OFS did not agree. Its expectations for the 1990 pay settlement were high. With the lifting of statutory income restrictions, the workers wanted something in return for the moderation they had shown in earlier settlements.

A view prevailed at the grass roots in favour of repeating the 1981 strategy of striking for better terms – even if a stoppage was illegal.

The negotiations were uncompromising and the workers downed tools after compulsory mediation and a meeting with the minister of local government and labour.

Compulsory arbitration was imposed in just 36 hours. That was as expected, but the speed of the decision nevertheless took the employees by surprise.

The OFS lost control over its own ranks, and an illegal strike continued. But the employers were well prepared, and kept oil flowing with a minimum of staffing while redeploying as many managers as possible offshore.

Telephone lines were shut down in some places, and a number of companies – including Statoil – threated to dismiss strikers. Within a week, the workers had to admit a crushing defeat.

The reprisals which followed laid the basis for long-lasting distrust and bitterness between the OFS and the operator companies. But they also reduced the willingness to strike.

Twenty-eight workers were sacked. Statoil, which had employed 20 of them, required the OFS to take disciplinary action against the real strike leaders as a condition of their reinstatement.

The union accepted this demand, but that decision created such dissatisfaction among the members and that the OFS leadership also had to resign.

Most pay deals in the 1990-96 period, when the solidarity model dominated, were settled without conflict. But that is not to say they were orderly – the unions fought each other fiercely. However, the 1990 episode had left the OFS weakened and the internal split never healed. On the contrary, it could be said to have laid the basis for the developments to come.

Rights under threat

A corporative system calls for close collaboration between unions and government. The former participate in official councils and commissions, while formal and informal ties develop between the various players. This means the unions are required to accept the government’s economic policy parameters, and must commit their members to do the same.

The labour movement acquires influence, but is tied more strongly to government strategy. That restricts shop-floor opportunities to mobilise in opposition to these policies.

Many people regarded the OFS as a threat to this system, both because it was not tied into a binding collaboration and because of its willingness to fight through legal and illegal strikes.

The government and a number of the big organisations in the labour market claimed that it was too easy to down tools in Norway, and that small, independent unions were irresponsible in pursuing their pay demands.

Both the LO and the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (NHO) presented proposals to restrict the right to negotiate and strike. For their part, the employers wanted unions to have at least 100 000 members and be organised on a nationwide basis before they could pursue pay talks and down tools.

The Labour Law Council was asked by the Ministry of Local Government and Labour to assess the principles underpinning the Labour Disputes Act, with particular attention to cases where several competing pay agreements covered the same area.

In its 1993 report, the council reached the same conclusion as the NHO – a union federation should have more than 100 000 members in order to negotiate and call strikes. It also proposed that the decisions of such a federation should be binding on its member unions, and that it should have the final word on whether to launch a conflict.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Norwegian Official Reports (NOU) 1996:14, Prinsipper for ny arbeidstvistlov. These proposals were controversial. Although the OFS was defined as a national organisation, it had no chance of meeting the membership requirement.

While these extensive amendments to the Labour Disputes Act were debated, the Storting (parliament) resolved after a long and fairly heated discussion to drop them. But the proposals from the NHO, the LO and the law council provide an indication of the mood affecting labour relations in the 1990s, and of the way small, independent, quarrelsome unions were regarded.

Internal conflicts pile up

The law council’s report also had a big impact on disputes emerging within the OFS. The federation had been affected by internal strife between individuals, between south and north in the Norwegian North Sea (the Ekofisk Committee versus the SaF) and between large and small branches. Substantial disagreement had also arisen over the expansion of the membership base. The ABC stood on the same side as the Ekofisk Committee on these questions.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Supreme Court judgement, HR 2000-328, Rt-2001-603 (114-2001).[REMOVE]Fotnote: De Facto , March 1996, “Ved en skillevei”.

One of the most difficult issues was whether contractor personnel working on the NCS could become members of the OFS, which had started life as a body confined to operator employees.

Over time, however, the union had absorbed various groups working for offshore contractors. To secure pay agreements for these, other groups were taken out in sympathy strikes which proved burdensome for established branches, including the ABC.

The future organisation of the union was debated both centrally and locally, and the ABC proposed talks with Nopef as early as the 1994 conference. This suggestion was rejected.

A committee was appointed by the general council on 30 August 1995 to discuss the issue with a view to a conference decision on joining a national federation in the following year.

The SaF, which was the largest OFS branch, decided to go its own way and submitted a proposal on collaboration with the YS to a membership ballot in 1995. This produced a majority for leaving the OFS and joining the larger federation, which would also be able to negotiate on behalf of oil industry employees on land. The Statoil union wanted a single body covering all groups in the oil and energy sector, whether offshore, in offices on land, at refineries or in possible gas-fired power stations.

In its view, that could be most easily achieved by joining the YS. Following the ballot, the OFS statutes allowed the SaF to leave after a new vote six months later.

What were the differences between the two relevant federations? The LO has traditionally collaborated closely with the Labour Party, while the YS is politically neutral. In organisational terms, the LO is based on “industrial” unions organising all the workers in a specific sector, and the YS embraces both industrial and vocational unions. Both the OFS – later Safe – and Nopef – now called IndustryEnergy – aim to organise all employees in the Norwegian energy sector.

With chair Terje Nustad in the lead, the SaF now launched a campaign aimed at getting the whole OFS to join the YS rather than experiencing a split which would leave the whole union weakened. Nustad argued his case at the ABC annual conference in January 1996, but failed to convince. The Amoco union wanted the OFS to remain independent, and adopted the following resolution:

The annual conference of the ABC has resolved to work to maintain the Federation of Offshore Workers Trade Unions (OFS) in its present form. The Amoco Company Union will hold the chair of the area committee for operator employees in 1996, and will serve as a driving force in this context for continuing to develop the OFS.

A discussion forum for operator employees without decision-making authority, the area committee voted on 1 March 1996 (with the exception of the SaF) to work for a unified OFS which could continue to serve as an independent alternative to the main union federations.

Despite agreement in the committee on maintaining an independent OFS, tensions persisted between the operator area and the sitting general council.

Nor were SaF members shy about describing the leadership in derogatory terms – a gerontocracy, naval-gazing, backward-looking and self-absorbed were just some of the expressions recorded in an interview by Bergen daily Bergens Tidende.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Bergens Tidende , 14 February 1996, “Oljearbeiderne splittet”.

The SaF secured the support of Hydro’s OFS branch. A letter sent by the council of the latter in 1996 to its members expressed what many felt:

We currently have such major internal conflicts in the OFS centrally that it is very difficult to see how the organisation is capable of protecting the interests of us members on the continental shelf. The OFS is an organisation where major personal intrigues have been pursued, with personal prestige put ahead of the federation’s well-being. Similarly, the large unions have a tendency to ‘refuse’ to accept legally taken decisions … Fairly undemocratic forms of governance do not hold out the promise of any long future as an organisation. This uncertainty has created paralysis, stupid initiatives and loss of members.

The branch council also urged the members to assess whether the OFS was an organisation they wanted to stay with in the future. It sought authority to start negotiations with the local Nopef branch.[REMOVE]Fotnote: “OFS today”. Undated letter to the members of OFS Hydro, signed by chair Oddvar Karlsen, ABC archive, folder ABC ballot, box 4066.

The last strike

When this power struggle was at its height, in the spring of 1996, the OFS called its members in the construction and maintenance sector out on strike in a bid to secure a separate pay agreement for them. Maintenance personnel working alternatively offshore and on land had been recruited by the OFS during the 1990s, both to secure greater weight and as a result of the Labour Law Council’s report.

The NHO refused to agree to a separate agreement with the OFS on the grounds that the LO’s United Federation of Trade Unions was already the recognised negotiator for this group.

Although unions in Norway have the right to use strikes and other sanctions to force employers to concede an agreement, such action made big demands on unity and strength.

The OFS was a campaigning organisation, and very conscious that its members administered the oil and gas assets which were the source of national prosperity.

To win its case, the strongest action had to be taken. Oil production on the NCS needed to be shut down, which meant in turn that operator employees had to down tools in sympathy.

Despite the vocal reluctance of the area committee for the operator unions, the OLF’s executive committee resolved to bring out the members of certain branches on 16 April in support of the striking construction and maintenance workers. Once the decision had been taken, however, the general council dispersed for Easter and left responsibility for the strike to an official.

This person, who was not centrally employed in the organisation, forgot to notify the branches concerned, contrary to the approved procedure. The way things were handled sparked strong reactions, not least from the ABC, and the first attempt at a sympathy strike was halted because the conflict had not been approved by the general council.

After the executive committee had secured a general council go-ahead, the sympathy strike began on 4 May with the exception of two branches – the Ekofisk Committee and the ABC.

The first of these voted in April 1996 to stay at work. It did not want to participate in a stoppage which hit the installations where its own members worked unless they had also participated in the decision.

That view was supported by reference to the 1993 statutes which effectively gave the Ekofisk Committee a veto. The OFS dubbed this strikebreaking and claimed that the Phillips union was refusing to support a legally approved stoppage.

The ABC supported the Ekofisk Committee and asked the OFS leadership to change the strike notice. Its statutes had also been amended in 1993 so that it could refrain from a centrally imposed sympathy strike. On the basis of this provision, the ABC refused in 1994 to comply with the OFS call for a sympathy strike. That led in turn to a showdown meeting.

On that occasion, the Ekofisk Committee had supported the OFS and approved a rebuke for the ABC for poor organisational discipline.

However, the two branches were now on the same side. The ABC maintained that the strike was very badly organised and that the decision had been taken by the central leadership without involving the branches affected.

Withdrawing from the OFS general council, the ABC wrote to the federation on 30 April to say:

We wish to inform the executive committee/general council that the ABC resigns from its posts in the operator area committee as a natural consequence of opposing the general council’s decision to take sympathy action on 4-5 May 1996.

The signatory was ABC chair Ingard Haugeberg, who wrote in a press release dated 3 May 1996 that:

The basis for refraining from a sympathy strike lies in the total lack of preparation, coordination and information from the OFS centrally to the ABC council. The ABC was first notified by the management, for example, that its members on Valhall were to take part in a strike.

It emerged from the release that the ABC found it unwise to strike at a time of internal unrest, when several branches were considering withdrawing and when the union was held in poor regard by its members. The ABC was fully aware that exclusion from the OFS was a possibility. “It now only remains to be seen whether the general council excludes us on 10 May.”[REMOVE]Fotnote: Press release, 3 May 1996, from ABC chair Ingard Haugeberg, “ABC – hvorfor vi trosser OFS”. ABC archive, folder ABC ballot, box 4066.

Exclusions – beginning of the end

And the council did just that. All council members in the Ekofisk Committee and the ABC were excluded from the OFS general council because of their refusal to participate in the sympathy strike.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Letter from OFS chair Petter Chr Bonde to Ingard Haugeberg, 10 May 1996. ABC archive, folder ABC ballot, box 4066. The Ekofisk Committee chose to regard itself as excluded from the OFS. A decision to withdraw from the federation was due to be confirmed by a ballot of members in July. An appeal by the ABC to a planned extraordinary national conference resulted in the exclusion decision being overturned on 28 May.

The same meeting adopted a motion of no confidence in the sitting general council, and elected a new body. Oddleiv Tønnesen became chair, with Terje Nustad as deputy chair. Both supported joining the YS.

Regarding itself as excluded from the OFS, the Ekofisk Committee applied for membership in Nutec. It became an associate member in May 1996 and a full member two years later. The dispute between the Phillips union and the OFS was settled in the Gulating court of appeal on 18 May 1998.

The sympathy strike was, as claimed above, very badly organised and had to be called off after nine days – when the branches in Statfjord, in Hydro and in BP had already returned to work on their own initiative.

As the organisational debate continued, it became clear that three options existed – retain and develop the established structure, join the YS or become part of Nopef.

These choices must be seen in light of the Labour Law Council’s proposal that a main federation had to be nationwide, have at least 100 000 members and be able to bind its members in pay negotiations and disputes.

Discussion materials were developed, and two conferences for union officials were held in September with participation by both Nopef and the YS.

The ABC wanted the OFS to remain independent, but supported a broad and detailed debate on various other options. But it found that internal debate was coloured by the new leadership’s view that only membership of the YS was relevant.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Letter from Ingard Haugeberg, dated 22 September 2000, ABC archive, box 4066. As time passed, the ABC began to see that its main objective – continued independence for the OFS – was unattainable. A proposed agreement for joining Nutec was prepared in September 1996.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Norwegian Supreme Court judgement of 26 April 2001. Case no 2000/328, civil case, appeal. ABC archive.

The general council secured a resolution at the OFS national conference from 31 October to 1 November to recommend that members be balloted on an application to join the YS.

This was rejected by the ABC’s delegates, and Haugeberg moved that two ballots on affiliation with the YS should be held six months apart. That was in line with the requirement for leaving the OFS, but was voted down by a big majority.

In June 1996, the ABC had proposed to the national conference that a single ballot would be sufficient for a union to leave the OFS should this decide to join a national federation. The motion had no chance of being carried and was withdrawn without a vote.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Norwegian Supreme Court judgement of 26 April 2001. Case no 2000/328, civil case, appeal. ABC archive.

When the OFS voted to affiliate with the YS, the ABC conducted a ballot of its own membership on whether to accept this decision or become part of Nopef. Eighty members voted, with one ballot blank, two for the YS and 77 for Nopef. In other words, the overwhelming majority opted to follow the Ekofisk Committee into the LO union.


OFS members were balloted in January 1997 on the question of affiliating with the YS. Participation was low, primarily because the Ekofisk Committee members were still registered to vote but abstained because they considered themselves to be excluded. In January 1997, the ABC council decided to ignore the OFS rule requiring two ballots six months apart for withdrawing from the federation.

Instead, the union decided to apply its own statutes, which stated that a council decision to transfer to Nopef became valid after 30 days. If any of the members objected, they had to say so within this deadline.

The reason given for the withdrawal was that the original basis for joining the OFS had been removed once the federation ceased to be free and independent by affiliating with the YS.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Executive committee decision, 29 January 1997. Signed by Ingard Haugeberg, Jan Hveinnis and O Johansen.

A quick response was received from the OFS in the form of an brusque letter which questioned the ABC’s democratic organisation and seriousness.

Three demands were listed – the council’s decision of 29 January had to be withdrawn in its entirety, the ABC had to comply with the general council’s statutes, and a written response had to be provided in 12 days.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Letter of 3 February 1997 from the OFS to the ABC executive committee. Signed Terje Nustad, chair. At the same time, the OFS announced that it would take legal action to secure a resolution of the dispute through the courts.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Norwegian Supreme Court judgement of 26 April 2001. Case no 2000/328, civil case, appeal. ABC archive.

The ABC refused to meet the federation’s demands, on the grounds that the OFS had chosen to join the YS on the basis of a simple majority vote in the ballot.

With effect from 3 March 1997, the ABC regarded itself as a branch of Nopef, and required that all correspondence to it had to pass through the latter.

Court case opens

That was not the end of the matter. The OFS filed a complaint with the conciliation court on 23 April 1997 on the grounds that the ABC was a member of the federation.

The ABC won in the Stavanger conciliation court, primarily on the basis of its right to reserve itself. According to the judgement:

[A]lthough a large majority of the OFS members had shown through balloting that they wished the federation’s basis as an independent organisation to cease, and for the federation to be no longer independent, this cannot deprive the individual members/unions of their right to reserve themselves against remaining in the OFS when the basis for its originally creation has been removed.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Case no 9700761. Extract from the proceedings of the court of conciliation in Stavanger, 2 August 1997.

When the OFS took the case to the Stavanger district court, the ABC won again and was awarded costs against the federation. The latter appealed, and the Gulating court of appeal came to a different conclusion – the ABC was a member of the OFS and had to pay NOK 105 875 in costs for both court appearances.

This was a difficult issue for the LO, which would in many respects have preferred to see a judgement in favour of the OFS to safeguarded its own barriers against disaffiliation. So although the ABC regarded itself as affiliated to Nopef, it was unable to use the LO’s legal team. This had been anticipated, and the Amoco union had found an external lawyer – paid for by Nopef.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Interview with Ingard Haugeberg.

The ABC challenged the appeal court’s finding in the Supreme Court on the grounds of both erroneous application of the law and errors of fact.[REMOVE]Fotnote: Norwegian Supreme Court judgement of 26 April 2001. Case no 2000/328, civil case, appeal. ABC archive.

In its judgement of 16 April 2001, the court found that the ABC’s resignation from the OFS contravened the latter’s statues. It was clear that the union had failed to follow the specified procedure, since only one ballot was held rather than two.

The ABC’s strongest argument for pulling out as quickly as it did, with a single vote, was that affiliating with the YS – even for a brief period until the second ballot could be held ­– against the will of the  bulk of its members would have had serious consequences for the union.

While the Supreme Court appreciated that the ABC had found itself in a difficult position, it took the view that this was not enough to contravene the statutes. But this did not mean the OFS had won its case that the ABC remained a member of the federation such a long after the latter had withdrawn contrary to the statutes on 3 March 1997.

The Supreme Court decided it was impossible to enter a judgement that the ABC’s membership of the OFS remained in force. It noted that the two organisations were by then members of different national federations. This had been the case since the ABC withdrew. On that basis, the court found that it would be unreasonable and make little sense to declare that the union was still an OFS member.

Because of the overwhelming majority in favour of withdrawal in the ABC ballot, the court also concluded that a new vote six months later would have had a similar outcome. On that basis, it decided to declare that the union’s membership of the OFS had terminated on 30 June 1997 – six months after the first ballot.

The outcome was that both sides scored a partial victory. Neither side was awarded costs against the other, but the ABC had to pay membership dues to the OFS from 3 March to 30 June 1997.

That marked the end of the ABC’s time in the OFS. It was now a member of Nopef and, when Amoco and BP merged, remained the union for employees on Valhall. But it changed its name from the Amoco Company Union to the Employees Company Union (Ansattes Bedriftsklubb).

Published 12. July 2019   •   Updated 2. November 2020
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