Socialist Worker

Shell drivers' victory shows how we can beat pay freeze

by Matthew Cookson
Issue No. 2107

Workers at the Grangemouth oil refinery on strike two weeks ago (Pic: Duncan Brown)

Workers at the Grangemouth oil refinery on strike two weeks ago (Pic: Duncan Brown)

The victory by Shell tanker drivers last week shows how workers can defend their living standards in the face of rising inflation and attempts by bosses and the government to hold wages down.

Management offered the drivers a 9 percent pay rise for this year and a 5 percent pay rise for next year after four days of hard-hitting strike action – and in the face of threats of more to come.

Around 640 drivers in the Unite union working for Hoyer UK and Suckling Transport – the two companies that Shell contracts to supply its petrol stations in Britain – struck from Friday 13 June until Tuesday 17 June.

The strikers picketed 14 oil refineries across Britain. The solidarity shown by drivers from other companies was decisive in the victory, with many refusing to cross the picket lines.

Workers at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland walked out unofficially after 11 Scottish Fuels drivers were suspended for not crossing the picket line.

The strike affected hundreds of petrol stations across the country. The threat of more action forced management into a climbdown.

Shell tanker drivers earned a basic wage of just under £32,000 a year for a 48-hour week. The deal will now place them on about £36,000.

But with overtime and other payments, their average earnings are expected to be almost £42,000 by the end of the second year. Workers voted by 453 to 56 in favour of the deal.

The government moved quickly to attempt to contain the impact of the Shell drivers' deal on other groups of workers. But it is clear that their victory has panicked them.


John Hutton, the business secretary, tried to portray the deal as an isolated incident that had no relevance for other workers. 'This settlement reflects particular conditions within this sector,' he said.

'However, the government remains clear there needs to be discipline in public and private sector pay if we are to keep inflation under control.'

But the significance of the Shell victory cannot simply be swept under the carpet. Even the right wing media acknowledged that the tanker drivers had showed the power of strike action.

Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun's associate editor, complained about the outcome of the strike, saying that 'bosses waved the white flag, dished out a 14 percent rise and signalled to every hard-up worker that industrial muscle works'.

The deal should give heart to all workers, in both the private and public sector, that they can resist the attempts to make them tighten their belts to pay for economic problems caused by the government and bosses.

Private sector rises are above 2 percent limit

Research by the IDS Pay Databank this week revealed that a number of private companies are agreeing pay deals above the government's 2 percent limit.

This contradicts claims by ministers Alistair Darling and John Hutton that the Shell deal was a 'one off'.

The biggest rises in the private sector have been in the engineering, chemicals, energy and water sectors.

One in five deals over 4 percent were linked to the RPI measure of inflation. This is higher than the government's preferred CPI measure because it takes housing costs into account.

Recent rises in the private sector that are over 2 percent include a 7 percent rise for 600 workers at Drax Power, 7.6 percent for 500 workers at Babock Engineering and 5 percent for 55,000 workers at Barclays bank.

The rises are ahead of the current CPI measure of inflation – 3.3 percent. They are also above the RPI measure, which is now 4.3 percent.

Knowledge of these deals can boost the confidence to fight of millions of workers who are being told they have no choice but to accept pay cuts.

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Article information

Tue 24 Jun 2008, 18:51 BST
Issue No. 2107
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