Unite drivers claim government warnings jumped the gun on possible strike over outsourcing and ‘dangerous cost-cutting’
Motorists planning their holiday getaway were not the only group expressing relief after the threat of an Easter petrol strike was lifted.
“I am glad that the public will not be inconvenienced over Easter,” said Alan Taylor, a 51 year-old fuel tanker driver. Sitting at a cafe in Portishead outside Bristol, Taylor is about to embark on a three-day stint of driving a truck, weighing up to 44 tonnes when fully loaded, to petrol stations around the UK. He is one of 2,000 drivers who were balloted for strike action in a dispute over the safety and training standards that underpin that task.
The events of the past week have surprised Taylor and, in the case of burns victim Diane Hill, left him aghast. “I am genuinely upset that someone has got hurt over this.” An hour-long conversation with Taylor and two fellow drivers indicates that the government thought strike plans at the Unite trade union were much more developed than was the case. Anticipating imminent walkouts, ministers advised motorists to fill up jerry cans and cars, resulting in queues at petrol stations around the UK and, in one case, tragedy. It appears that the government jumped the gun. “I told my family not to fill up because there is no need. We had not even decided when the action would take place,” says Taylor.
However, while Taylor stresses that he does not want to disrupt the public, he and his companions are adamant that a strike vote was necessary. Alan Jones, 53, in his 12th year as a tanker driver, describes an industry that is straining under cost pressures brought about by oil groups and retailers outsourcing petrol deliveries.
Squeezed by the tight margins on those contracts, the contractors put a financial straitjacket on drivers with knock-on effects for health & safety, training and pensions, says Jones. “We cannot let it degenerate any further. The tendering process has dictated that a company, let’s say supermarket A, will put out a tender for a contract and inevitably they will inevitably look at the cheapest one. The winner of the contract then has to make their profits. So the situation revolves around who they can squeeze and they inevitably squeeze the drivers.”
Emphasising that the dispute is not about pay, a common refrain in the conversation is safety and training. “This week I saw a tanker driver loading a vehicle in a [fuel] terminal with hand-written instructions. When he was asked, he said he had been given only one day’s training,” says Jones. Taylor adds: “To say that is dangerous is an understatement.”
Dean Williams, 44, says peace talks at Acas need the backing of the oil groups and retailers that he says are at the heart of the “contract culture” gripping the industry. “We want the paymasters there. We believe that the contractors are the wrong people to have at the table.”
Otherwise, say the drivers, a new generation of ultra low-cost operators will emerge as the next contract merry-go-round starts. They want a new industry forum to oversee common standards in safety and training, as well as insuring that pensions are transferred effectively every time a contract changes hands. According to Jones, ballot was needed to ensure that serious talks over these issues took place.
Jones adds: “I am very pleased and relieved that it has been announced we are in discussions with Acas [the conciliation service]. We have striven for the past 12 months not to be in this situation and it is a relief amongst the vast majority of petrol tanker drivers that common sense seems to have prevailed.
“This is about nothing more than a degeneration of safety standards in the industry. If you are driving along the motorway and you are in a car with your family and you see a petrol tanker you will take it for granted. The public needs to know that the people driving that tanker are experienced, properly trained and know how to handle an incident.”
All three drivers are shop stewards at the Unite union, so while they are an unscientific sample of a 2,000-strong workforce, there is a sense that talks with Acas will be given a chance at least, provided the terms of discussions can be ironed out on Monday. That said, the phrase “enough is enough” abounds. The talks have to be serious, even though the past week has given Unite and its drivers a stark illustration of what the threat of industrial action alone can do. A strike would, inevitably, be worse.
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