by Amy Jackson
As panic-petrol queues subside, the Coalition’s handling of the situation continues to get a hammering from the media. But it is only a matter of time until the newspapers’ attention is turned to the tanker drivers and their union, Unite. Unfortunately for the drivers, it is failing of the mainstream press that stories covering strikes rarely care to address the industrial issues leading up to the yes vote for strike action. So before the strike dates are announced and more panic-buying ensues, Left Out asks, why are the tanker drivers walking out?
The story starts a year ago, when the UK’s tanker drivers, represented by Unite, approached the leading fuel distribution companies in an attempt to establish minimum standards across the industry. Their key asks covered health and safety, training, and conditions in contracts, ensuring an industry-wide bottom line for all workers. Currently, fuel distribution in the UK operates on a contract basis, with companies winning and losing contracts every three to five years. With each change of contract, terms and conditions are attacked, driving down costs in an effort to make the lowest bid. Sacrifices are made on health and safety, decent training, and pensions, with some drivers reporting six different pension schemes in ten years.
Not content to continue in what they argue is a ‘fragmented’ and ‘unstable’ industry, the tanker drivers suggested two measures to protect it from the declining standards effected by the ‘contract merry-go-round’. The first is a national agreement on minimum working standards and health and safety. The second, a national forum, respected by all industry players, with a responsibility to uphold these minimum standards. However, despite a year of pushing the leading companies to put these measures in to effect, Unite and its members have had little success. Not all key companies have seen fit to even attend meetings on the subject, and the industry has mostly blocked any progress on minimum standards. The oil companies at the top of the chain cannot claim the changes are unaffordable – last year just four of the top global oil business made a combined profit of $106 billion. Exasperated by increasingly poor working conditions and a refusal by companies to take their concerns and suggestions seriously, Unite members have voted to take strike action, in the first national strike in the industry in ten years.
The strike dates have not yet been announced, and Unite have ruled out an Easter strike to focus on talks with the companies. Should a walkout go ahead, there will be over 2,000 workers striking from seven different companies: Wincanton, DHL, Hoyer, BP, J.W. Suckling, Norbert Dentressangle and Turners. The number of fuel distribution companies gives an idea as to how much the industry has changed. Tanker drivers once employed directly by the oil companies now work for ‘middle men’ contractors, supplying petrol to forecourts in Sainsbury’s, Tescos, Esso, Shell and many more.
If fuel tanker drivers are to go on strike, petrol stocks could run out within 48 hours, closing the majority of the UK’s 8,706 petrol stations. This would undoubtedly cause chaos in the UK, but the strike is a last resort, and totally preventable by a super-rich industry that has failed its employees for too long.