Saturday, 14 April 2012

Tanker drivers' dispute

The UK’s armed services are full of young people who joined-up to get a job, preferably a trade that would stand them in good stead for civilian life, should they survive postings to war zones such as Afghanistan.  I’m sure very few thought they could end up being used as strike-breakers by the government.

It speaks volumes about the current UK Government that their first reaction to the possibility of a strike by fuel-tanker drivers was to issue orders that army personnel be trained to do the job.  Tories and their Lib Dem lapdogs immediately put in place plans to use the armed services to break the possible strike, thereby undermining the legitimate right of workers to withdraw their labour as part of an industrial dispute.

Britain has some of the most draconian anti-trade union laws in Europe, and the tanker drivers’ dispute has shown that, even when workers fully comply with them, the government is prepared to call up the military to defeat legitimate strike action.

According to UK Government Ministers, the distribution of fuel is such an important national issue that “the country can’t be held to ransom by a group of disaffected drivers”.  Prime Minister David Cameron said there is “no justification” for a strike.  Energy Secretary Ed Davey added that, with the London Olympics approaching, “it is unacceptable and selfish” for tanker drivers to “behave in this manner and jeopardise our international reputation”.  Mr Davey is a Liberal Democrat, but see how quickly and easily he slips into the language of the Tories.  Of course, wishy-washy Labour leader Ed Miliband refused to give his support to the tanker drivers, saying instead that, “We must avoid strike action at all costs”.

Last week also saw senior members of the UK Government ratchet-up the rhetoric surrounding a possible strike by encouraging motorists to fill up the tanks of their cars, and even stockpile petrol in jerry cans.  A day later, one English police force ordered petrol stations to close after panic-buying turned into a frenzy.  Senior officers were quoted saying lives were being put at risk on roads blocked by queues of motorists rushing to fill up after ministerial warnings of fuel running out or being rationed.  Bear in mind, all of this happened without a single tanker driver actually going on strike.

Another consequence of UK politicians encouraging panic buying of fuel was revealed by the AA, which calculated the Treasury would benefit by around £32million in extra fuel excise duty.

So, against that background, maybe it would be a good idea to look at why tanker drivers feel they may have no option but to take strike action.  Certainly, you would look long and hard to find an objective analysis of the dispute in most of the UK’s print and broadcast media.

Companies like Shell and BP are amongst the most profitable in the world, but some years ago, in a move designed to make even more money, they decided to end the situation where they directly employed tanker drivers.  That part of their business was sub-contracted to a range of companies who introduced changes to suit their own business models, each of which was again driven by the profit motive.  Some tanker drivers have seen themselves employed by as many as six different companies in the space of ten years as contracts and companies were taken over.

Drivers report these changes have resulted in a steady erosion of terms and conditions, with one company attempting to implement changes that will see drivers’ wages being slashed by £9,000 a year.  In addition, contractors supplying fuel to garages across the country have introduced a culture known as ‘turn and burn’, which puts additional pressure on drivers to deliver and unload their fuel ever faster.  These practices, nothing less than cutting corners to make more money, have led drivers to fear for public safety.  We should remember that the vehicles drivers are being told to drive faster and unload quicker each carries a load of 38,000 tonnes of volatile fuel.

Trade unions representing tanker drivers have patiently negotiated with employers for years: the drivers want stability restored to the industry, in terms of employment, wages and conditions, and safety.  However, despite the supply of fuel being of paramount importance to so many industries, not to mention individuals who use their car to get to work, the industry is at the mercy of private companies operating within the free-market and driven – as all capitalists are – by maximising profit, even if that means compromising safety standards and pressuring drivers to work faster, for less pay.

The reason we now face the possibility of a strike is because the patience of tanker drivers and their trade union representatives has run out.  One driver summed-up the position last week, saying, “Literally, there is a race to the bottom taking place on our roads.  Bosses are continually driving down wages, conditions and safety standards.  We can no longer sit back and tolerate it.”

Rather than backing the unscrupulous bosses and scapegoating tanker drivers, the UK Government should be listening to the very serious issues raised by this dispute.  Of course, that won’t happen.  It won’t happen because the Conservatives and their Lib Dem lapdogs (not to mention Miliband’s Tory-Labour) fully support the capitalist system that prioritises the making of money over all other considerations.

Tanker drivers should be praised for conducting themselves with integrity as they have fought against the dangerous ‘race to the bottom’ in their industry.  If they are ultimately forced into strike action, they will deserve our full support.  Please bear this in mind as you hear UK Government ministers and read reports in right-wing newspapers attacking ‘selfish’ tanker drivers.

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