MILLIONS of motorists face the prospect of petrol shortages over Easter, after tanker drivers voted to go on strike.
In the first national campaign of its kind since the fuel protests which brought the country to a standstill more than ten years ago, members of the Unite union voted in favour of industrial action in a row over their terms and conditions.
The drivers supply fuel to 90 per cent of the UK’s forecourts, and the union said a strike could close about 8,000 petrol stations. While it is still not known what form the industrial action will take, any walk-outs could start as early as next Monday – just days before the Easter weekend, when millions of extra cars are expected on Britain’s roads.
The UK government has already said it will draft in the army to aid supplies, with Grangemouth refinery and depots in Aberdeen, Clydebank, Livingston and Inverness likely to be affected.
Unite said the action had not been prompted by concerns over pay, but rather “corners being cut” on safety and training, along with the decision to swap final salary pension schemes for “inferior” money purchase schemes.
But motoring groups warned that it would be drivers who would suffer the most as a result of the action, with many remembering the “misery” caused by fuel blockades in 2000.
Diana Holland, Unite’s assistant general secretary, 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.
“This is not about pay – this is about ensuring that high safety and training standards are maintained, so that our communities are safe. It is about a simple measure, the creation of an industry-wide bargaining forum. It is about bringing fairness and stability back to an essential national industry.”
Ms Holland added: “No longer can it be acceptable that oil giants rake in profits, while shirking their responsibility for the stable supply of a national commodity. The measures we are proposing are reasonable, responsible and sensible. We urge them to act and listen.”
Around 2,000 workers in seven major distribution companies were balloted for industrial action – Wincanton, DHL, Hoyer, BP, J W Suckling, Norbert Dentressangle and Turners.
The union said strikes were supported by an average of 69 per cent in five of the firms, which deliver fuel to Shell and Esso garages, as well as supermarket chains such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
DHL drivers narrowly voted against strike action, but voted in favour of action short of a strike, while union members working for Suckling voted against any form of industrial action.
The action, which has the potential to cause widespread disruption across the UK, comes a month after Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, said unions should look to disrupt the Olympics as part of their campaign against cuts made by the coalition government.
The government has announced that soldiers are being lined up to stand in for tanker drivers if strikes go ahead.
But Energy Secretary Edward Davey said a strike would be the “wrong action” at the “wrong time”.
He 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.
“This is an industrial dispute and we strongly urge Unite to resolve it by getting back to the negotiating table, not by threatening the nation with economic and social disruption.”
On Monday night, the government held a meeting with fuel delivery companies and supermarkets to plan tactics for coping with any resulting strike.
There are plans to use special emergency powers to make sure supplies for fire and rescue services are prioritised and trained military personnel are available to drive fuel tankers.
Police officers will also be drafted in to ensure the strike action does not “intimidate or prevent” drivers who do want to work, the government said.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government encourages both sides to negotiate to resolve the issues in dispute in order to ensure disruption to individuals and the economy is avoided.
“This is a trade dispute between the tanker drivers and their employers, and Scottish ministers are closely monitoring the situation, and have been in touch with the industry and UK ministers. The Scottish Government and its agencies meet on a regular basis, to plan and prepare for a range of potential situations.
“We continue to be in regular contact with industry and agency partners to assess any developments and progress contingency plans.”
Motoring organisations said the effects of any industrial action depended largely on whether strikes were continuous or held for just one or two days at a time.
Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “Road fuel is the lifeblood of the economy.
“A strike risks bringing serious disruption to the UK’s 34 million drivers.
“The government has emergency plans to keep supplies flowing to priority groups such as emergency workers, but most motorists – many who will still remember the misery caused by the 2000 fuel protests – will find themselves a long way down the pecking order.”
Retailers warned against panic buying, saying that supplies could run out in just a matter of days if motorists decided to fill their tanks.
Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said: “This is bad news for British business – a tanker drivers’ strike threatens to clog the arteries of the economy. The vast majority of travel in Britain takes place on the roads.
“If the fuel runs out, firms will not be able to transport goods, staff will not be able to get to work and it will cause chaos.
“All businesses, not just those the drivers are protesting against, will be hugely disappointed if the unions press ahead with strike action.”
CBI director-general John Cridland added: “This vote should disappoint us all. Disruption is in nobody’s interest at this critical moment in the recovery.
“Our roads are vital for the health of our economy, delivering 83 per cent of all goods in the UK, and 70 per cent of employees to work.
Going ahead with strike action would have a real impact on people across the country.”
A spokesman for Hoyer, one of the suppliers affected by the strike vote, said: “We are dismayed at the outcome of the Unite ballot for industrial action involving 650 drivers on our fuels contracts, particularly as only 215 drivers out of the 650 voted for strike action.
The spokesman went on: “We therefore believe that this action is being driven by a small, disaffected group of employees.
“By leading its members to strike action now, we believe that safety is being used as a Trojan horse by Unite’s leadership in its bid to seize control of the industrial relations agenda.
“Hoyer has a business to run and a duty to all its employees to see that business is sustainable – we believe that this industrial action will be damaging to all parties, as well as to the British economy.”
In full: strike ballot results
The results for the seven companies involved in the ballot are:
• Turners 94.4 per cent in favour on a turnout of 81.8 per cent
• Norbert Dentressangle 74.8 per cent in favour on a turnout of 71.3 per cent
• Wincanton 68.4 per cent in favour on a turnout of 71.9 per cent
• BP 60.2 per cent in favour on a turnout of 85.8 per cent
• Hoyer 59.7 per cent in favour on a turnout of 79.7 per cent.
• DHL drivers narrowly voted against strike action (44.6 per cent), but voted in favour of action short of a strike (53 per cent)
• Suckling voted against strike action (85 per cent) and action short of strike (76 per cent).