Industrial action appears to be back in vogue. Members of the National Union of Teachers marched through London and other cities last week in the first education strike in 20 years. And yesterday 1,200 staff from the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland began a two-day walkout. The NUT strike inconvenienced many parents. But the action of Scottish oil workers threatens much wider disruption.
The Forties Pipeline, which provides 30 per cent of the UK's daily oil output from the North Sea, has been shut because it relies on electricity and steam generated from Grangemouth. The Government fears a repeat of the politically damaging fuel protests of 2000. But whereas that blockade of fuel depots by lorry drivers affected the entire country, this crisis is likely to be experienced mainly in Scotland, which relies most heavily on supplies from Grangemouth. Already the pinch is being felt. Some garages have reported running out of fuel; others have introduced rationing and others have increased prices.
Extra fuel supplies are being shipped in from Europe. The Scottish government announced at the weekend that 65,000 tonnes will arrive over the next few days on seven tankers. Meanwhile, the Scottish executive is urging motorists not to "panic buy" or hoard petrol. The Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, has even asked public sector staff not to take unnecessary journeys.
The grievance of the Grangemouth workers is that the plant's owner, Ineos, intends to scrap the final salary pension scheme for new entrants and to reduce the provision for existing members.
Discussions broke up last week without agreement. It is possible to have some sympathy with the Grangemouth workers, especially given the considerable profits being generated by Ineos. But at the same time, it should be noted that these workers are hardly alone in seeing their final salary scheme dismantled. This has happened across the private sector in recent years. Less than 20 per cent of final salary schemes are still open to new members, and those that remain are demanding increasingly large contributions.
In the broader context, this crisis must be seen as part of the global energy squeeze. It has been clear for some time that global demand for oil has been outstripping supply. That is what is pushing up prices around the world. That a relatively minor industrial dispute such as this can have such a knock-on effect demonstrates how dependent Britain is on a relatively small number of supply outlets. The Grangemouth dispute will eventually, no doubt, be settled, but the chronic crisis of our economy's total reliance on environmentally damaging and dwindling oil supplies will continue.