Kent lorry group organised Essex refinery blockade

The Hauliers
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The Independent Online

The image of spontaneous protest may be true in other parts of the country but not in the South-east. Behind the events of the past week is a well-organised network of Kent hauliers who are part of the Trans Action Group.

The image of spontaneous protest may be true in other parts of the country but not in the South-east. Behind the events of the past week is a well-organised network of Kent hauliers who are part of the Trans Action Group.

Trans Action was set up early in 1998 and was behind the first wave of protest in London and elsewhere. This week's protest at the Essex oil depots have been mainly manned by the Kent hauliers, who have not been impressed by their Essex counterparts' timidity.

Trans Action leaders include Derek Linch, who owns 28 units, and the Taylor family of the big Kent haulage company of that name. Their network is impressive. With a few calls on their mobile phones, convoys of lorries have appeared to support flagging protests.

One Trans Action leader called Frank, an owner-driver, organised an effective rolling blockade of the A13 involving 30 lorries on Wednesday. But Tony Blair's allegations of violence and intimidation are far from the mark. At the Essex sites, not one threat or aggressive statement has been logged by the police or media. The exits from the terminals were never blocked. There was no need. The collusion between the protesters and the oil company drivers is all but overt.

Drivers from the main companies have been openly giving support to the protesters, with some oil company drivers bringing over food and drink as presents. It is impossible to believe oil company drivers' claims that their safety is in any danger. This is nothing but a convenient excuse allowing the protest to have maximum bite as a favour from one part of the haulage industry to another. "We are all in the same boat, or cab, you might say," said one driver.

The reason is that on the two sides of the fence in this dispute are one fraternity - lorry drivers. Together, the tanker drivers and the independent hauliers have formed the nearest to a home-grown Teamsters' Union, the formidable and intimidating confederation of American drivers, that Britain has even seen.

Lorry driving might be a solitary job but the drivers form a tight-knit community born during many meetings over bacon and eggs at service stations. Their backs against the wall with rising fuel prices, they are tighter than ever.

"This is not the kind of work you do if you want to be in the darts team at your pub," said Ian Williams, a driver-owner from Kent. "You never know when you will have to work. Often, like when you're working for the supermarkets, the job starts at 1.30 in the morning."

In theory, British lorry drivers are only allowed to work 92 hours a fortnight, but it is well known that some drivers break these rules.

At the core of the protests have been the lorry owners. These are usually working- class men who have shown some entrepreneurial flair. At the Essex protest, lorry owners varied from those who have 28 units to those who owned just their own lorry.

But support for the protest has come from all drivers, especially those employed by the oil companies. "We know if these blokes go out of business it affects the haulage industry throughout the UK. We support each other," said one oil company driver.

Having flexed their muscles, the protest leaders are preparing for a title bout in 60 days' time. Mr Linch said: "We've brought the country to its knees with a few phone calls. Next time we will be organised."

Many of the hauliers have been caught on the wrong side of French strikes in recent years and, after falling victim to Gallic blockades, they have learnt tricks more usually associated with militant unions than small businessmen.

The haulage game is a hard one where only the fittest survive. Hauliers, like many small businessmen, have worked all the hours of the clock to build up their trade.

Mr Williams said: "It's not just the driving. On most weekends we spend our time doing maintenance and paperwork."

These men are not prepared to give up their living without a fight. Before the fuel price rises a good living could be made by a successful haulier.

Like farmers, haulage contractors, while pleading poverty, all appear to drive the latest Range Rovers and other four-wheel-drives. Some turned up to the protest with mobile homes and caravans.

Many ordinary drivers who support the protest aspire to start their own businesses. One Esso lorry driver said: "One day I hope to buy my own lorry and start a haulage company and if I don't help these chaps now there will be no British haulage industry to join."