Driving a hard bargain for British truckers

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The Independent Online
Talks aimed at ending the French truckers' dispute broke down last night as the main transport union called for a national general strike in support of the lorry drivers.

Hundreds of British lorry drivers were still stuck in an ever-tightening blockade that has spread to the key port of Calais.

With no end in sight to the week-long dispute over the implementation of European legislation on working hours and talks between management and unions not due to restart until tomorrow, the Freight Transport Association in Britain warned that small businesses faced a "catastrophe".

Seasonal producers and manufacturers expressed alarm that Christmas deliveries of toys and food would be delayed, and angry scenes were reported at roadblocks, with at least three people injured and a spate of accidents involving cars and unlit stationary lorries.

For a while, British lorry drivers stuck at Calais retaliated by moving their vehicles to block the port to tourist traffic. One driver said the move was designed to try to get everyone around the negotiating table. After about two hours, the protest was called off, but drivers said the British blockade could be reinstated at midnight if French peace talks broke down.

One driver from the United Kingdom said: "I've got lorryloads of fresh game that is going to waste and I'm losing money all the time."

Another added: "The French really know how to go about making their point. They have got real solidarity, and we admire them for that, but they've made their point and we're losing out now."

The UK government promised to press France for compensation for the drivers, many of whom have seen their loads rot away in the blockade.

Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, said that his French counterpart had given him details of compensation that could be available for the British. He promised to seek swift compensation and said he would press the French further if necessary.

France's General Confederation of Labour (CGT) has called a general strike for tomorrow, which other unions said they would join if there was no progress in the truckers' negotiations with company owners.

Last night, more than 200 British lorries were blocked at Calais; others were being diverted to Zeebrugge in Belgium. Five crossing points on the frontier with Germany were blocked and lorry traffic on the main motorway link with Belgium was halted.

The number of oil refineries and distribution centres cut off was increased. Hundreds of garages, mainly in the south and south-west, were reported to be out of petrol, with Esso and Total warning that the situation was deteriorating sharply. Three car plants were already idle for lack of components and France's central traffic information service counted more than 160 roadblocks a cross the country.

After eight days of disruption, tempers appeared to be fraying. Two lorry drivers were injured when a farmworker refused access onto a major road reversed his tractor into them. A German driver, struck by a projectile when he tried to get around a roadblock near Dijon, was in a serious condition.

Despite this, according to a recent poll almost three-quarters of French people support the strike. It seems that the lorry drivers will be able to hold out for quite some time yet.