Held over a barrel

‘Without fuel, they were nothing. They built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world crumbled. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear.’

No, I have not gone mad.  The above is actually the opening narrative to Mad Max 2, although with the long lines of vehicles forming queues across the United Kingdom and panic stricken motorists greedily filling any available container with fuel last week a historian working centuries in the future would be forgiven for thinking that these events actually did happen in March and April, 2012.   I am of course referring to the self-made fuel shortages that have dominated the national new spectrum for the past two weeks.  With so much press attention currently fixed only upon the scenes seen at petrol station forecourts and government incompetence, what is all the fuss about?

Well, in the first instance the fuel shortage crisis began when the fuel tanker drivers became disillusioned with their employers.  Citing concerns over pay, health and safety laws, pensions and an increasingly harsh working environment, the drivers turned to their representative Union, Unite.  Although talks were held over the last year these were unproductive and tanker drivers were instead balloted over strike action.  Signalling ‘overwhelming’ support in favour of strike action, the drivers refrained from announcing when a potential strike would take place, instead using the threat of strike action as a far more effective tool for gaining media attention.  Whilst most members of the public were oblivious to the developing crisis others began to panic buy, filling their tanks and stockpiling fuel having remembered the catastrophic consequences of the year 2000 fuel strikes within the United Kingdom.

It was at this stage that Whitehall chose to offer advice to motorists – even though a strike had yet to be confirmed and the panic buying elements of the public were currently in the minority.  On the 28th March, 2012, Cabinet Minister Frances Maude publicly stated on Sky News that people should take ‘sensible precautions’ and maintain a jerry can full of fuel at home.  Instantly criticised by the Fire Brigades Union this advice was later withdrawn for being incorrect and potentially unsafe.  However, with social media as the catalyst the damage had already been done; forecourts were swamped with motorists looking to fill their tanks and shops such as the motoring giant Halfords were reporting that jerry can sales had increased by 600%.

So, having created mass panic with the mere threat of striking do Unite and the tanker drivers have a legitimate reason to strike?  At a first glance it would appear that they do not.  Whilst fuel tanker driving is unquestionably an extremely dangerous job and Unite has insisted that the strike is not about pay, it should be noted that the drivers are paid an average of £45 000 per year and that all have been offered an extra £250 bonus for two hours extra work per day to resolve any shortages at petrol stations.  For many families who are struggling to contend with rising fuel, food and living prices, reports of such wages have only served to alienate large chunks of public support.

However, this does not mean that we should adopt a Thatcher-esque mentality and prepare for a protracted and bitter dispute simply because these people are well paid.  Neither should we follow the example of American ex-President Ronald Reagan and sack all strikers, replacing them with military staff as a temporary measure.  Instead, we should accept that the tanker drivers and Unite do have a valid and legitimate argument.

Although vague in their Health and Safety demands, it is unquestionable that Health and Safety should be paramount in any job, within reason.  Aside from the armed forces and other well-known dangerous jobs, employees should not have to fear that their lives and the lives of others are in danger because of cost cutting.  Clearly, if the drivers of vehicles laden with more than 40 000 litres of highly combustible liquid are concerned that lessons from the 2005 Buncefield Oil Refinery disaster have not been studied and recommendations implemented they undoubtedly have reason to strike provided that they have followed the correct grievances procedure.

The aftermath of the 2005 Buncefield Oil Depot explosion

Additionally, the tanker drivers are concerned over pensions.  Due to the way that contacts are managed, some drivers have had three changes of employer in a year; this often affecting pension schemes as different contracts allow for different entitlements.  For companies reporting profits that are measured in tens of billions, not millions, this is unfair.  Surely such vast and profitable companies should be able to offer employees a certain amount of stability so that they can effectively plan for the future?

Ultimately talks are being held this week by the conciliation service ACAS to try and resolve the crisis before a flashpoint is reached.  Provided that the issues raised are not merely a smokescreen for bartering and increased pay the tanker drivers and Unite obviously have my support, for now.  However, I would like to stress that my support is not unwavering.  Evidently, our battered and fragile economy cannot currently afford to take risks and when holding important jobs which both metaphorically and literally ‘fuel’ Western civilisation, the drivers and unions should learn to be far more responsible.  Striking must remain a last resort and treated with the same level of caution with which the President of the United States treats the American nuclear arsenal.  They would be wise remembering that politics and public sympathy can soon change.

After all, it is an unearned privilege that 2062 people are able to hold the entire country to ransom.


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