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Tanker drivers: the Tories’ new ‘enemy within’

Tanker drivers have a legitimate dispute. If they win, it would destabilise the Tories further. Rebecca Anderson explains that this is why Tory ministers have launched a war against them

Over 2,000 petrol tanker drivers from five oil distribution companies are threatening to strike over deteriorating and dangerous working conditions. The root cause is the outsourcing of tanker transport by the big oil companies and the pressure they put on the competing subcontractors to cut costs or lose contracts.

The result is a race to the bottom and increasing job insecurity for drivers, with some forced to switch companies two or three times a year. Job losses have begun and more are on the way. Shorter delivery times mean pressure hiking up on drivers to cut corners and overwork, leading to potential accidents.

An earlier dispute this year at Kingsbury, Immingham and Stockton-on-Tees refineries with a company called Wincanton, which threatened its drivers with 20 per cent pay cuts, closure of the current final salary pension scheme and slashing redundancy and sick pay to the statutory minimum.

The oil giants calling the shots – BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips – made a record $137 billion profit last year but have refused to negotiate on minimum health and safety standards, independently accredited (i.e. real) training for this dangerous, skilled job or trade union facilities.

Against all this the drivers’ union Unite is demanding industry-wide standards on pay, pensions, training and hours that all companies would have to comply with. This would mean that they couldn’t undercut wages or ignore safety rules in the endless drive for profit.

Media wars and war games
Not that you would have gleaned any of this from the telly, radio or newspapers. The BBC – except for Newsnight – has so far failed to mention any of the issues or the companies involved. Instead it has portrayed the strike as an irresponsible act by a handful of workers seeking to make ordinary drivers’ lives hell and bring the economy to a halt.

Despite the clear public interest in creating decent safety standards, the government and the media have slandered the tanker drivers and their union, Unite.

Cameron has demanded the tanker drivers abandon their strike and has met with the tanker companies to plan how to underminethe strike, promising at least 80 RAF crew and 300 army drivers for a scab distribution service. Cameron has even convened a meeting of Cobra, the state’s top emergency committee, usually convened in times of national crisis.

The prime minister also advised drivers to top up on petrol, even though Unite had not even given the statutory seven days’ notice of a strike, causing chaos at the pumps and shortages in some areas.

Even worse, cabinet minister Francis Maude called on drivers to store “maybe a little bit in the garage as well in a jerry can”. The Fire Brigades Union and the AA both complained that this was dangerous advice, and that it was potentially illegal to keep petrol indoors.
Tragically, their warnings did not come in time to save Diane Hill, who suffered 40 per cent burns after fumes ignited while she was decanting petrol in her kitchen. Diane was rushed to hospital in critical condition.

Time to strike
The Tories were forced to beat a retreat after this but still claim Unite and the drivers should negotiate, not strike. But here again ministers are throwing sand in people’s eyes; the bosses have refused talks for a year. Unite should name the date of the first strike, announce a plan for rapid escalation to keep the anger focused, and allow tanker drivers to build solidarity from other workers.

Unfortunately Unite officials have delayed the strike, insisting there will be no action over Easter; instead appealing to the government to intervene – as if they haven’t already! – and focusing on talks at ACAS. This dithering plays into the hands of the government – why give Cameron and co. time to organise against the strike?

Tanker drivers should remember the British Airways dispute and the way that talks, on-off strikes, refusing to strike over Christmas and Easter and calls for government intervention all led to defeat. If tanker drivers follow the successful example of their fellow Unite members among the Sparks and organise a rank and file committee, they can control the strike, set the pace of the action and reach out to other sections of workers for support, such as the construction workers at the refineries, who have recently won with wildcat strikes.

Victory to the tanker drivers!

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