Union values remain in the face of shifting technology

Union values remain in the face of shifting technology

Robin Rigg windfarm

  • 15 November 2018 10:03
  • Energy

Regrettably, the growth of renewable energy in the UK has been accompanied by the erosion of collective bargaining. However, E.ON’s renewables business, E.ON Climate and Renewables, is an exception, reports Mike MacDonald, Prospect negotiator.

The UK has been at the forefront of technical change as turbines become more efficient and better adapted to the hostile offshore environment.

Moreover, given the high capital costs of the wind business, the UK has also developed the complex commercial framework to marry highly volatile wind generation with fairly predictable consumer demand. This enables projects to become economically viable.

More accurately, Prospect members as technicians, engineers, project managers and commercially experts have developed systems that ensure that wind farms can be financed so they can be more efficient and safe.

Without this professional expertise, wind would not have developed. EC&R has developed a pay structure and consultation process to address the difficult issues of change.

Recent changes at EC&R further demonstrate the value of union involvement and how it generates better outcomes for staff and the business, as well as increasing the ever elusive employee engagement sought by senior managers.

Winds of change

Operation and maintenance of offshore wind is a continuous process and requires offshore work from technicians and engineers when weather permits.

As the offshore windfarms have developed, the shift patterns inherited from the offshore oil and gas contractors have become less and less suitable.

In the absence of any meaningful staff input, long runs of 12-hours shifts have become a common practice across the wind sector.

In practice, each wind farm has different weather and operational characteristics.

EC&R have brought much more of the maintenance in-house, reducing the use of contractors to scarce skills and peaks, usually in summer.

However, the 12-hour shifts used by contractors have proved to be unsuitable, while individuals can earn significant overtime, they also spent an excessive amount of time at work.

So at Robin Rigg windfarm in Cumbria, Prospect members on the technicians’ rota sought change so they could get a better work-life balance. The company’s review of operations and safety also highlighted potential issues with long shifts.

We set out to review shift patterns and design a technician’s’ rota that suited Robin Rigg. As this was the first time this change had been negotiated in the UK, inevitably this was not as smooth and as polished as long-established pay negotiations.

Contractors in renewables would simply dictate change regardless of staff views, inviting individuals to boost their high turnover rates if they did not like the proposed changes. 

While this is a strange way to deal with professional staff, who cost an average of over £160,000 to train, it is all too common with Britain’s command and control management style.

By contrast, we went through a process of discussion, maybe even argument, to establish a new rota that has reduced shift lengths, provided breakdown cover to deal with defective turbines and has secured a weekend emergency standby process.

Negotiation benefits

We will review this over the next six months with the local management team as detailed issues with shift rotas only emerge as new rotas are trialled. We have also allocated time in the new rotas for safety briefings and skills training so all technicians develop the skills to operate safely as “senior authorised persons.”

Our discussions have also improved our input into training and safety. Given the specialised skills and remote location of most offshore windfarms, EC&R inevitably relies on developing its own engineers from experienced technicians and graduate entrants.

Prospect and its members have benefited from negotiations that have established a better working pattern and confirmed the availability of skills development: we have also seen a healthy rise in membership and the election of two new reps, countering the dogma that unions cannot recruit young people in a young industry.

More importantly, by engaging with unions and their members, EC&R have ended up with a different work pattern than originally proposed that better suits their business. 

At a time of rapid commercial and technological change, it seems obvious that any employer would want to adopt a management system that retained skilled staff, improved their engagement in the business and enables an adult conversation about how we need to change to remain competitive.

The challenge to other renewable businesses is whether they have the vision to modernise employee relations by involving Prospect or whether they cling to the personal contract dogma of last century.

Michael Macdonald

Michael Macdonald


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