The four-day strike over pay by tanker drivers supplying Shell petrol stations showed the power that workers have to disrupt the normal running of the system.
Around 640 drivers in the Unite union working for Hoyer UK and Suckling Transport – the two companies that Shell contracts to transport its petrol – struck from 6am on Friday of last week to 6am on Tuesday of this week.
Many drivers from other companies refused to cross their picket lines. At the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland, many drivers walked out on Monday of this week to join the strikers after 11 workers from Scottish Fuels were reportedly suspended for refusing to cross the picket line.
Shell tanker drivers earn a basic wage of just under £32,000 per year for a 48-hour working week. Some 16 years ago, a typical tanker driver directly employed by Shell earned the same amount, but for less hours – approximately £32,000 per year for a 37-hour week.
The union is demanding a 13 percent pay increase for workers to try to make up this gap.
The companies are claiming they cannot afford to meet that, even though Shell made £13.9 billion in profits last year.
But the strike has forced one of the world’s biggest multinationals to sit up and listen.
It had a big impact with almost 650 petrol stations running out of at least one type of petrol by Sunday evening.
While the union and management were in talks as Socialist Worker went to press, Unite had stepped up the pressure by calling another four-day strike beginning on Friday of this week.
This would leave the company just 72 hours to replenish its 900 petrol stations, which it admitted would not be possible.
Strikers gathered outside 14 refineries around the country.
Pickets told Socialist Worker of their anger, and their determination to win this fight.
Gary, one of the drivers on the Coryton picket line in Essex, said the workers are sick and tired of trying to catch up with the pay of drivers who work for other companies.
He said, “Shell says it’s losing money on the pumps but we don’t believe it. It says we’re earning over £40,000 a year. In fact, you’d have to work every possible hour in the year to get anywhere near £39,000. But it’s not just about pay.
“Productivity’s up – tanker capacity is 10 percent more than ten years ago. There’s more paperwork. You’re stuck in the middle of the night in a garage in central London after a delivery filling in forms. Some drivers have been attacked.
“Ten years ago Shell used to be a good company to work for. Now it’s diabolical. There used to be decent facilities.
“There’s no canteen now – just a coffee machine. In our depot there’s 170 drivers and only seating for 35. Drivers even had to club together to buy a microwave.”
He also complained about Shell’s disciplinary code. He said, “There’s only serious or gross misconduct. No one ever gets a three-month warning. There’s a driver on a year’s written warning for a clipped wing mirror.”
There were 25 pickets out on the first morning of the strike at the Royer oil distribution depot in Kingsbury, West Midlands.
One striker there said, “We’ve had enough. Negotiations have been going on since September. It’s not just us – the whole of the public have had enough of the way we are treated.”
“It’s a nightmare working for Shell now,” said one driver on the picket line at the refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland.
Grangemouth usually dispatches 40 vehicles an hour. But the pickets put a stop to this and they also turned back a number of tankers from other companies who refused to cross the picket lines.
The drivers were also very heartened to hear about a lone Unite picket in Inverness who had managed to turn back every tanker that had turned up.
Pat Rafferty, a senior regional industrial organiser for Unite, pointed out that just 20 minutes of Shell’s profits could settle the drivers’ claim.
Workers from other unions took messages of solidarity to the picket line. Firefighter Jaz Thomas from the FBU union in Bristol joined the Avonmouth picket line last Sunday.
Jaz said, “The pickets we spoke to were very confident. There was lots of support for more four-day strikes.
“None of the drivers from other companies were crossing the picket line. The strikers said they would see us this weekend for the next action.”
The strike has inspired other drivers. Unite reps from different companies from across the country were set to meet in London on Wednesday of this week to discuss their own issues, and what action they can take in the event of a dispute.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite’s south and east regional committee.
He told Socialist Worker in a personal capacity, “People have seen through the press propaganda about the high wages of Shell drivers and are supporting their action.
“It is in the interest of every lorry driver to support their wage claim, because if the Shell drivers win it will help push up everyone’s confidence to fight for better wages.
“The rank and file solidarity that has been seen in the strike is absolutely key to workers defending their living standards. Truck off Shell.”
Thanks to Des Freedman, Mike Barton, Eileen Boyle, Pete Jackson, Helen Salmon, Simon Guy, Duncan Brown, Dan Swain, Graham Kirkwood and Ian Allinson