As the world looks on with horror at the unfolding war in Ukraine, one group of UNISON members found themselves faced with the prospect of handling an import into the UK from Russia.
The energy workers are employed by the National Grid at its Isle of Grain terminal on the Medway Estuary, the UK’s leading terminal for the import of liquefied natural gas.
Arriving chilled to -160˚C in ships from around the world, it has to be pumped into the site’s tanks – some, the size of the Royal Albert Hall – where it is stored until needed. When the site is operating at full strength, it can supply 25% of the gas that the whole country needs at any given time.
As you might expect, the work is complex and hazardous.
Peter Read has worked at the Isle of Grain for around 16 years and is also the UNISON branch chair, with a membership density of around 90% among the site’s maintenance and operations staff.
Just over a week ago, when he was off shift, he was contacted by a number of members who had seen the schedules for ships due to arrive in the following days, having spotted that two were listed as carrying Russian gas.
“Some of them were quite passionate about it and stated that there was no way they were they were going to be doing anything to unload the ship”, he says.
The Fedor Litke was diverted away from Grain, but the Boris Vilkitskiy was still en route for the Medway. A Russian name doesn’t mean that it is owned by a Russian individual or a Russian company. The way in which ships are registered around the world makes it difficult to know who ultimately owns them.
So nobody could be certain that the ship itself should come under the sanctions that the UK government has unveiled since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But for all Westminster’s claim that it’s in the forefront of an economic response to the war, there’s a loophole; the sanctions talk of ships – but not of what they’re carrying. If the ship could not be said definitively to be Russian, it could come in. If its cargo was Russian or not was irrelevant.
Though since the term “operate” is used in terms of ships in the sanctions, this leads UNISON to believe that, where a ship is chartered by a Russian-owned firm, it falls foul of the regulations.
“It’s been a bit of a trial,” says Peter. “I hope it’ll all go away now, but the trouble is, it’s still lurking until the government get their act together. It’s put everyone in a bit of a difficult position”.
His concern straight away was that he could see “people begin to fall foul of the disciplinary procedure. I set about really trying to head that off”.
Able to contact most of his members by mobile, Peter carried out a straw poll of their thoughts, giving them three options:
One: ‘I’m not bothered; I’m quite happy to do it’.
Two: ‘I would do it, but I would do it under duress and be uncomfortable about doing it …’ In other words, that they were worried about losing their jobs.
Three: ‘I don’t care what the consequences are, I’m not doing it’.
Of those who replied, he says that “pretty much 100%” were in the second and third categories, with a third of those prepared to face possible action as a result.
No clarity from the government
Peter contacted management and Matt Lay, UNISON’s national officer for energy, and together they set about trying to get clarity from the Department of Transport on whether the ships were covered by the sanctions or not.
But nothing concrete coming back from Grant Schapps’s department and, “the Port Authorities … everyone was floundering around, trying to force the government into clarifying whether this ship was part of their sanctions or not”.
With the ship due in late last Thursday night or in the very early hours of Friday morning, and still without clarity from the government, time was running out.
On the Wednesday, Matt and UNISON’s press office put out a press release.
“I’m not sure National Grid were over-happy about it at the time,” says Peter, “but there was no malice to any of the parties concerned and it was wholly aimed at the government and trying to get some clarity.”
He muses that, possibly, this was something that was easier for a union to do than the companies, and by late Thursday, after the press release had garnered huge attention, it appeared that the ship was no longer heading to the Isle of Grain.
The union’s action had averted the possible risks to security at and around the site from protests and press descending en masse, together with reputational damage. National Grid later confirmed to the Guardian that no further deliveries of Russian gas were expected.
Peter is at pains to stress that none of this was aimed at management, and he wants to make it clear that he sees the companies as having been caught between a “rock and a hard place,” with no idea what would happen in terms of contracts if they had cancelled the delivery without the sanctions covering such action.
Equally, he stresses that in a meeting the employer had categorically assured UNISON that no worker at the site would be compelled to unload the gas if the ship did dock.
“To be honest, I never really expected that to happen,” he observes. “But it’s like all of these things, it’s much better to front it up before it’s happened than deal with it after it’s happened”.
Although the strength of feeling of UNISON members has seen off the Boris Vilkitskiy, Peter remains concerned that, until the government sorts this out properly, “it’s just been kicked down the road”.
But on Friday, he described a sense of “relief” at the site – from both workforce and management.
And if, in the future, there is another such shipment, the company assured the union that unloading would be done on a voluntary basis, and “then we discuss the safety concerns for anyone tending that ship, if we ended up with protests and people find themselves in the media”.
For now, though, UNISON members can claim a victory in the struggle to close down the revenues that help to fund Vladimir’s Putin’s war machine.