With the current economic climate the government has been urged to act as peace-broker to prevent a national strike by fuel tanker drivers after hauliers voted for walkouts in a series of ballots, raising the threat of industrial action over Easter.
The Unite trade union held back from declaring strike dates after balloting around 2,000 drivers at seven companies. Five voted for strikes including the contractor for Shell petrol stations, and drivers at DHL backed action short of a strike. Unite members at one business, Suckling, which supplies Jet and Total, rejected industrial action.
A Unite source said the next 24 to 48 hours would be key to determining whether the union pushes ahead with setting dates.
“The next 24 to 48 hours will be key to seeing whether the [haulier] industry and government are serious about sitting down with the union.” Unite must take strike action over the next 28 days or the mandate established by the ballots will expire.
The source added that the government had to get involved in talks, as ministers consider putting the army on standby to replenish fuel stocks.
“This is an infrastructure issue and it is a commodity of national importance,” said the source.
Diana Holland, the assistant general secretary of Unite, 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.”
Unite members, who claim industry standards have slumped since firms such as Esso and Shell outsourced petrol deliveries, are seeking common safety and working standards across all contracts.
A statement from Unite said: “Tanker drivers work in an increasingly fragmented and pressurised industry, where corners are being cut on safety and training in a bid to squeeze profits and win contracts. Drivers face growing job insecurity as a result of the contract merry-go-round and a beat-the-clock culture has flourished, with drivers forced to meet ever shorter delivery deadlines.”
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.
The energy secretary, Ed 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.”
Unite drivers supply fuel to 90% of the UK’s forecourts and the union said a strike could close up to 7,900 petrol stations.
Unite members working for five fuel distribution firms delivering fuel for household names, including, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, BP, Shell and Esso, backed the call for strike action by an average of 69%. Turnouts across the five companies averaged 77.7%
The government has announced that soldiers are being lined up to stand in for the tanker drivers if strikes go ahead, although Unite has pledged to maintain deliveries to the emergency services.
A spokesman for Hoyer, which delivers for Shell, said: “Hoyer has one of the highest health, safety and training standards in the petroleum distribution sector. Pay and conditions for Hoyer drivers are among the best in the industry. Our drivers earn on average £45,000 a year.”