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Tesco lorry

Tesco lorry. Photo: Jaggery / Geograph / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Amid the HGV driver shortage, lorry drivers at two firms are fighting back against poor pay and conditions, reports Chris Neville

Lorry drivers who work for Tesco subsidiary Booker could soon take strike action in a pay dispute.

The drivers' union, Unite, says that Booker is using underhanded tactics in an attempt to 'hoodwink' them on pay. Two depots, in particular, have been mentioned.

At the company's Hemel Hempstead depot, Unite recently negotiated an hourly increase of £5 for drivers in an agreement reached in July. But Booker then proceeded to bypass the union and propose a new deal directly with all drivers, regardless of union membership.

Unite says that the deal will leave drivers worse off and contains stipulations for retention bonuses that are unlikely to be met. The members are angry that their terms could be decided by non-union drivers and down the road, at the Thamesmead depot, the drivers are unhappy that they never received the £5 uplift that their colleagues in Hemel got.

So now, the Thamesmead drivers have voted to strike and voted in big numbers with 100% saying yes to action. The problem for Booker is for the first time in a long time, the workers hold all the cards.

Elsewhere, drivers for Hanson are balloting for strike action after rejecting a below-inflation pay rise. Hanson contract the haulage for Castle Cement and the implications for the construction industry could be huge.

As has been widely publicised, there is a massive driver shortage in Britain. Covid and the Tories' poor handling of Brexit has exacerbated the issue but years of poor working conditions, low pay, long hours and the huge burden of responsibility on drivers mean the problems have been festering for years.

Some employers are trying to throw money at the situation but some, like Yodel, seem to be taking an almost suicidal position of digging their heels in and inflaming the situation with GMB currently balloting to strike there.

Training for a licence can take months and is an expensive process for workers to self-fund. It's also not an enticing prospect for many when the working conditions are taken into consideration.

The government has tried to manipulate the situation by extending the legal limit for hours driven and seem intent on regulatory changes to solve the crisis. They are now talking about changing the testing process to make it easier for drivers to climb from different category licences in less time.

Haulage firms and their representatives are calling for the government to relax restrictions on migrant drivers by adding the job to the Shortage Occupation List.

Both the government and the hauliers are ignoring the real issues. What we are seeing is a failure of the market to solve a huge problem that is only going to get worse in the future.

If the government was serious about this crisis, it could offer a scheme to the young and unemployed to train them for free. It could work with trade unions to ensure that drivers received good pay and pensions and that their health concerns were addressed.

Predictably, none of this is on the agenda. Instead, what we are likely to see is more industrial action as drivers rightly take the opportunity to regain some of what has been taken away under years of falling real-terms wages.

Hopefully, as has been mooted, other drivers across the UK will also seize this opportunity to turn around from the race to the bottom that workers have found themselves in for too long.

If there are widespread shortages of food, building materials and other goods as a result of industrial action then the government, the bosses and the press will try to vilify the workers as they always do.

It is our job as socialists and trade unionists to stand beside them with unconditional solidarity and then follow their lead in our own workplaces.

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