UK tanker drivers’ dispute lays bare social tensions

The vote for industrial action by 2,000 tanker drivers at seven major oil companies has revealed both the escalating social tensions and the political intentions of the parties and unions involved. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition stands accused of trying to achieve a “Thatcher moment” of confrontation with the workers in dispute, while the Unite union has indicated its unwillingness to pursue the dispute.

The government has made plans to use the military as a strikebreaking force in the event of any dispute, while cabinet ministers have been whipping up frenzy by encouraging the panic-buying and stockpiling of fuel. Unite, the union that balloted the drivers, has sought to play down the panic by undermining the dispute. Small business truckers and farmers, struggling with rising fuel bills, have pledged to support any strike by tanker drivers. Unite has moved to head off industrial action in order to reach agreement at the conciliation service ACAS.

Drivers at five major oil distribution companies voted overwhelmingly to strike against sustained attacks on jobs, wages and working conditions. These companies—Turners, Norbert Dentressangle, Wincanton, BP, and Hoyer—supply around 7,900 petrol forecourts. Workers at DHL and JW Suckling voted against strike action but backed action short of a strike. These seven companies supply around 90 percent of the UK’s petrol stations, and also supply airports.

Subcontracting of the distribution of petroleum products is leading to job cuts, the driving down of wages and attacks on working conditions. Unite reports regular changes in drivers’ contracts every three to five years, with each change further eroding wages and conditions.

This year has already seen strikes by Wincanton drivers against proposed wage cuts of up to 20 percent. Drivers complain that the time allowed for deliveries is being cut, and that fines are being imposed for missing these new deadlines. The erosion of safety is a major concern in a dangerous industry. Tanker drivers work 12-hour shifts in a 44-tonne vehicle, transporting between 36,000 and 40,000 litres of highly flammable petroleum product.

Drivers’ pension schemes are also under attack, with final salary schemes increasingly being replaced with inferior money purchase schemes. One union official described drivers being “passed between successful bidders like the commodity they move around, with their terms and conditions suffering. Some workers report having six different pension providers in 10 years as a result”.

The drivers’ dispute has also found support among the farmers and hauliers involved in the fuel protests in 2000, which forced a freezing of fuel duties. Andrew Spence of the Fuel Lobby group told the press that small businesses were going bust because of rising prices and fuel taxes. “There is no way you can make a living”, he said. “We are supposed to be coming out of a recession but it feels like we are getting deeper into it”. Spence said that Fuel Lobby had been in negotiations with drivers since the 2000 protests, and “have been aware of their grievances for some time”.

The government’s response to the strike vote was to step up preparations for a confrontation with the drivers. Plans were announced for the deployment of military personnel as a strikebreaking operation, with Energy Secretary Ed Davey threatening “whatever action” was necessary to beat the dispute, including “emergency powers”. A Downing Street spokesman has talked of “robust” contingency plans. Spence said the Fuel Lobby group was prepared to blockade refineries and motorways in order to prevent military strikebreaking vehicles.

The strike ballot gives Unite until April 23 to hold any strike action. Under anti-union legislation, the union must give seven days’ notice of any action. The union had already ruled out any strikes over the Easter period, as its officials began talks at the conciliation service ACAS yesterday with the seven distribution companies.

Despite Unite’s lack of enthusiasm, and very public emphasis on the length of notice required ahead of any strike action, the government was determined to exploit this situation. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude advised motorists to keep their fuel tanks topped up and to store jerrycans of petrol in their garages.

To some extent the hysteria he sought to create has backfired, and the government was forced to issue some partial amendments to its statement.

Maude’s advice, which was condemned by the Fire Brigades Union, saw a run of panic buying at forecourts across the country. A woman in York was hospitalised with 40 percent burns after vapours ignited while she was transferring petrol between containers in her garage. Foreign Secretary William Hague, whilst defending the government’s response, was subsequently forced to describe Maude’s advice as a “technical error”.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change has now advised that there is “no urgency to top up your tank”. Instead, they advise sticking to speed limits as a means of controlling fuel consumption. The AA now reports that panic buying has “dramatically dropped”. However, the Retail Motor Industry, the body representing 5,000 independent petrol stations, has said that up to half its members are short of fuel.

Despite the awkward adjustments, the government’s line remains clear. A Conservative Party spokesman was able to announce “The government has always been clear this is about doing everything possible to protect the country from a potentially crippling strike, and not about playing politics”. Hague insisted that “The country is in a better state of preparedness now than it was a week ago for the eventuality of a tanker strike”.

The government has had room to manoeuvre in large part because of Unite’s turn to ACAS and refusal to set strike dates. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, for example, noted that as talks are ongoing and will hopefully “lead to a resolution with no strikes taking place at all”, there was now no need to fill up tanks. Len McCluskey, Unite’s General Secretary, made a point of welcoming the talks, and thanked ACAS “for their efforts to pull both sides together”.

McCluskey went further in his reassurances to the government. Complaining that ministers had “panicked the nation all the way to the petrol pumps”, he insisted that they “knew all along that a strike could not possibly be less than seven days away even were it to be called—that is the law” [emphasis added].

Both Unite and the Labour Party have criticised the government’s confrontational approach. Labour’s Yvette Cooper told the BBC the government “created this petrol crisis”, and “caused a run on the pumps for political reasons because they wanted a ‘Thatcher moment’”. McCluskey asked whether the government was “acting as an honest broker, or is it spoiling for a fight in order to get itself out of the political hole its class-focused economic mismanagement has put it in?”

However, they propose no fundamental alternative.

In the same BBC interview, Cooper went on to attack the government for being “hopelessly out of touch on law and order”, promising that this would be at the heart of Labour’s campaign in local elections due May 3. Unite is seeking a more effective system of management of the industry, in which it will have a partnership role. The union has worked closely with employers over the last year on the Industry Forum, and is seeking only to get companies “to engage in meaningful discussions with us”, in McCluskey’s words. The union focuses on the “vital strategic importance” of the fuel industry.

Unite’s record should give some idea of the direction this will take. In the last year alone, the union has put in place a “settlement” at British Airways that betrayed striking cabin crew staff completely. Its scabs’ charter gave the company everything it had demanded and more. The union failed to call even one official action during the seven-month electricians’ dispute before entering talks on modernising the industry with employers.