Fuel tanker drivers look set to narrowly accept the employers’ latest proposals in their second ballot. Rob Otnik reports looks at the deal and its implications

closed pumpsIt looks as if a narrow majority of drivers may have voted to accept the employers’ latest proposals in the second ballot. This will be a disappointment to many activists who hoped for a decisive step forward in the security of their future terms and conditions, but there are a number of pluses to be recognised, as well as some very serious minuses.

On the plus side is the fact that the employers have (verbally) offered an assurance they are not seeking to drive down terms and conditions in the sector. This assurance, given that it is verbal, truly is worth the paper it’s not written on. However, let’s not be too cynical; they may be telling the truth.

More positively, there has been real progress on the question of health and safety and training. It now looks certain that there will be industry-specific training and qualifications without which companies will not be able to enter the sector. Of itself, this does not guarantee that terms and conditions (Ts and Cs) will not be undercut, but it does remove one major weapon from the employers’ hands.

There is also a commitment from the employers to look at pension provision in the industry, with a view to providing a single pension plan, which would be carried by drivers from contract to contract.

On the minus side is the fact that, in the eyes of the more active stewards, the union is leaving the field without many of the fundamental gains they were looking for. The employers are not prepared to sign a collective agreement; they are not prepared to offer any guarantees in writing; and they are clearly and actively opposed to offering any guarantees on security of Ts and Cs. This can only reinforce the more doubtful stewards’ worry that the employers’ long term plans remain the same: directly, or through front companies, to cut the pay and conditions won by an organised workforce, and reduce the influence of union organisation.

Far more worrying is the way the vote split among the drivers. DHL drivers narrowly failed to carry strike action in the original ballot, voting instead for industrial action short of strike. It appears that the Southern contract drivers supported the union call for action, but the Northern contract drivers outvoted them. Now, on the second ballot, on the employers’ ‘offer’, it appears that Hoyers drivers are also unconvinced of the argument for strike action.

The Hoyer drivers hold the Shell contract, and for those readers who remember the tanker drivers’ dispute just before the financial crash it may seem surprising that this group of workers should appear to be lagging behind their union.

Unfortunately, they have just signed off a 5-year pay deal with the company, despite Unite’s formal position of not tying themselves into anything longer than one year deals. The deal also offers a pay deal tied to productivity agreements, and appears to offer some security (at least for the next 5 years).

However, missing from the equation is the fact that there appears to be no clause preventing Hoyer introducing new drivers on a lower wage structure – the deal only appears to cover the existing workforce. In 5 years time, the pay increase will have been fully implemented and up for re-negotiation, but the productivity benefits will have been incorporated by the company, and will be permanent gains for Hoyer.

As is so often the case, the devil is in the detail. If a deal looks too good to be true – it probably is.

More worrying still are the rumours that the recently retired National Officer for road transport in Unite has taken up employment with one of the major new boys in fuel distribution, Greenergy, and was closely associated with the Shell drivers’ stewards.

There does appear to be a real problem in Unite (shared with other unions) that there is a layer of senior lay officials, who have held their posts for years, and have not broken with the old ‘business union’ approach of the Morris years. In the words of one activist in the oil trade sector, they have ‘developed too comfortable a relationship’ with the employers, and ‘do not want to rock the boat’.

In the view of this activist, the ballot went the way it did, not because the drivers fully support the current ‘halfway house’ deal, but because some stewards were not prepared to argue for (or indeed, convinced of) the need to drive the process forward. Where stewards took the argument head on, they appear to have the membership’s support. In truth, the Enough is Enough campaign has now run its course. The drivers have won definite gains on health and safety, but battle will be joined on the race to the bottom. We need to make sure that it is at a time of our and not the employers’ choosing.