Shell tanker drivers' strike - oil on troubled waters

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"The Shell drivers have driven a coach and horses through the Brown and Darling pay freeze," said Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, after the Shell tanker drivers won a 14 percent pay deal last month.

A host of commentators explained how it was inevitable they would win: "exceptional case... small group... concentration of power... strategic weak spot... essential resource..." Essential bollocks! No one claimed inevitable victory before the strike (or it wouldn't have happened, would it?)

The point is that the Shell drivers fought. They got great solidarity from their fellow tanker drivers from other companies who, in defiance of anti trade union laws, refused to cross picket lines. When the employers tried to use the law, they realised that for once the union was not going to back down.

The oil trade sector emergency conference called by Unite in London to organise solidarity for the Shell drivers turned into a celebration of their victory. Unite officials made it clear that despite some writs being served against drivers this was a battle they were determined to win.

One thing that sent the oil barons a message was when the stewards from Grangemouth booked flights to London for the meeting - they and other stewards right across the industry were offering solidarity action, whether or not the employers thought it lawful. The bosses got the message: the union was not going to blink. They caved in.

Within hours government ministers were called on to interrupt their Mansion House banquet to pontificate on the dangers of this settlement and remind us of the need to tighten our belts to fight inflation.

They are petrified by the implications. On the back of the Shell tanker drivers' victory, Unison officials have said they want to reopen negotiations on their pay deal in the health service next year if inflation keeps going up - everything is up for grabs.

Since I came into this industry I have seen the gross train weight of heavy goods vehicles go from 32 to 38, now 44 tonnes. The effective pay load (what the boss gets paid for carrying) has gone from about 16 tonnes per lorry to between 28 and 29 tonnes. My working day was limited to 12.5 hours, of which only eight could be driving. Now it can be up to 15 hours, of which ten can be behind the wheel. My pay then, 25 years ago, was about £240 for a 60-hour week. My take home pay last week for 60-hours was £390. That is what moderation leads to: shit wages.

The big difference between me, in general haulage dock work, and the tanker drivers is not one of skill, not one of dedication or productivity. The difference is they are near 100 percent unionised, we are 20 to 30 percent unionised.

At last our union intends to generalise the lessons of the tanker drivers right across road haulage.

The bosses are always whinging that their profits are squeezed by high fuel costs, never more so than the last six months. It costs no more per mile to drive a petrol tanker than any other lorry and I don't notice Shell going bankrupt. The truth is that for years the bosses have been stabbing each other in the back and rate cutting and subsidising the industry through our low wages. I hope that the Shell drivers have smashed this argument for good.

The case is becoming incontrovertible. There is a massive anger growing from the grassroots of the union movement. Tony Woodley said this was the biggest political fight the union has been involved in since Rover in 2000; the GMB union cut funding to 35 Labour MPs; and the CWU intend to ballot the membership on funding the Labour Party. All these suggest a tectonic shift in the political consciousness of our class. The battle is now on to provide a real political alternative.

Everybody loves a winner, so I guess tanker drivers are going to be the flavour of the month. Let's just hope that the lessons are learnt by every hospital domestic, refuse collector, office cleaner and civil service worker. This is not a special case argument. This is not an argument about an "aristocracy of labour". This is a good old-fashioned class battle - and the bosses lost. That is the significance of the tanker drivers' dispute. Roll on the trucking fightback.


Richard Allday is the chair of the Road Transport Commercial Trade Group, London and Eastern Region Unite. He writes in a personal capacity.