Fuel tanker drivers vote for action


The threat of a strike by fuel tanker drivers in a dispute over terms and conditions and safety standards came a step closer today when they voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action.

Around 2,000 members of Unite at seven companies were balloted for the first national campaign of action for over a decade, with those at five firms backing walkouts.

The union said strikes were supported by an average of 69% in the five firms, which deliver fuel to Shell and Esso garages as well as supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's.

The Government said it had "robust resilience and contingency plans" to deal with a strike and had already started to put these in place to minimise any disruption to the public.

One of the firms affected - Hoyer - revealed it had already started training Army personnel to drive fuel tankers if strikes go ahead.

Unite pulled back from naming strike dates, raising the prospect of talks in the next few days to try to resolve the dispute and avert industrial action.

The union will have to give seven days' notice of walkouts and have not ruled out the prospect of action over the Easter weekend, the first major holiday getaway of the year.

Unite drivers supply fuel to 90% of the UK's forecourts and the union said a strike could close thousands of petrol stations.

Diana Holland, Unite's assistant general secretary, said: "These votes send a clear message throughout the industry and should prompt all the major companies to get around the table to establish minimum standards.

"This is not about pay - this is about ensuring that high safety and training standards are maintained, so that our communities are safe.

"It is about a simple measure, the creation of an industry-wide bargaining forum. It is about bringing fairness and stability back to an essential national industry."

Unite stressed that the dispute was not about pay, describing the UK fuel distribution industry as "unstable and fragmented".

"Contracts chop and change every three to five years, bringing with each change a fresh assault on working conditions," said an official.

"Drivers are passed between successful bidders like the commodity they move around, with their terms and conditions suffering. Some workers report having six different pension providers in 10 years as a result."

Tanker drivers work 12 hour shifts, driving a 44 tonne vehicle, holding between 36,000 and 40,000 litres of petroleum product.

Unite said final pension salary schemes were increasingly being replaced with an inferior money purchase scheme, while jobs were being cut.

A Hoyer spokesman said: "We are dismayed at the outcome of the Unite ballot for industrial action involving 650 drivers on our fuels contracts.

"Particularly as only 215 drivers out of the 650 voted for strike action and we therefore believe that this action is being driven by a small disaffected group of employees.

"Hoyer has some of the best health, safety and training standards in the petroleum distribution sector.

"This has resulted in a health and safety record of which Hoyer is proud. In our history of delivering petroleum products for large oil companies, Hoyer has not had a major accident or serious injury to a member of our team.

"By leading its members to strike action now, we believe that safety is being used as a Trojan horse by Unite's leadership in its bid to seize control of the industrial relations agenda.

"Hoyer has a business to run and a duty to all its employees to see that business is sustainable - we believe that this industrial action will be damaging to all parties as well as the British economy."

Energy Secretary Edward Davey said: "The Unite ballot result is disappointing. The Government is strongly of the view that strike action is wrong and unnecessary. The union should be getting round the negotiating table, not planning to disrupt the lives of millions of people across Britain.

"Our economy is just getting back on its feet and any action that makes that harder is totally unjustified.

"With the London 2012 Olympics approaching, it is unacceptable and selfish to behave in this manner and jeopardise our international reputation.

"If we have to, we will use emergency powers to make sure supplies for emergency services are prioritised and we will work to ensure trained military personnel are available to drive oil tankers.

"The police will be on hand to ensure that strike action does not intimidate or prevent drivers that wish to work from doing so.

"While their main concerns are pay and conditions, which are matters for their employers, they have also raised health and safety. We take health and safety very seriously and will be looking carefully at what Unite is saying.

"The parties must get back around the table. There is no justification for this. It's the wrong action at the wrong time."

A Welsh Government spokesman said: "We are working closely with the UK and other devolved governments on contingency plans to minimise the impact any strike action may have on Wales."

Workers in seven major distribution companies were balloted for industrial action - Wincanton, DHL, Hoyer, BP, J W Suckling, Norbert Dentressangle and Turners.

The results were:

:: Turners 94.4% in favour on a turnout of 81.8%

:: Norbert Dentressangle 74.8% in favour on a turnout of 71.3%

:: Wincanton 68.4% in favour on a turnout of 71.9%

:: BP 60.2% in favour on a turnout of 85.8%

:: Hoyer 59.7% in favour on a turnout of 79.7%.

:: DHL drivers voted against strike action (44.6%), but voted in favour of action short of a strike (53%)

:: Suckling voted against strike action (85%) and action short of strike (76%).

Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said: "This is bad news for British business - a tanker drivers' strike threatens to clog the arteries of the economy. The vast majority of travel in Britain takes place on the roads. If the fuel runs out, firms will not be able to transport goods, staff will not be able to get to work and it will cause chaos.

"All businesses, not just those the drivers are protesting against, will be hugely disappointed if the unions press ahead with strike action."