Oil tanker drivers’ strike: Solidarity fuels the struggle

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At the beginning of June, 641 Shell tanker drivers struck for four days to increase their pay levels. This strike occupied the media headlines for several days, and some petrol stations ran out of fuel. It was settled with a 14% increase over two years (9% this year and 5% next). The Unite union and media made a lot of noise about the size of this award but it was only 0.7% more than the original offer (7.3% this year and 6% next). This strike, though only involving a few hundred workers and being resolved quickly, was an important expression of the developing wave of class struggle.

From the beginning of the strike workers from other haulage firms expressed their solidarity though respecting the picket lines or joining in their protests "Last night striking drivers at the Stanlow refinery in Cheshire were joined by about 15 BP drivers who refused to start work.

In Plymouth, union leaders said the strike action had been joined by drivers from every company and fuel supplies in Devon and Cornwall could start to run dry by tonight. Up to 25% of BP's petrol deliveries are believed to have been impeded, and some drivers for Wincanton, a firm which distributes fuel to 3,700 Total and Chevron filling stations, have refused to work out of solidarity with the strikers.

The Wincanton (a large haulage firm) drivers joined Shell drivers in protests at Cardiff, Plymouth and Avonmouth, leaving tankers stranded behind picket lines." (The Guardian, 14.6.08).

This solidarity took on a new dimension on the third day of the strike (16th June), when workers from other haulage firms joined the Shell workers picketing the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland in protest at the suspension of 11 Scottish Fuel drivers for refusing to cross picket lines. This was potentially a very explosive situation, given that the struggle was taking on a demand beyond those of the Shell tanker drivers - the defence of workers from Scottish Fuels. A demand that if not resolved could have drawn in more and more drivers and potentially other workers into the struggle. The Grangemouth refinery workers had struck in April over pensions, the first strike for 73 years and would have been aware of what was happening at the gates. Not surprisingly the bosses and unions moved rapidly to stop this by reinstating the suspended workers. Unite dismissed the workers' determined defence of their comrades as a "misunderstanding". For the working class it was an example of the power of proletarian solidarity.

It should not be forgotten that such action is illegal, as was that by the Wincanton and other workers who joined the struggle. However, we did not hear a word about this in the media. Why? They did not want to highlight the fact these workers were not only showing solidarity but also were not intimidated by laws brought in to stop such expressions of solidarity. Such defiance could inspire other workers.

So-called independent drivers, those with their own rigs or hired as sub-contractors, also showed solidarity by not crossing picket lines. This was no easy action for them because they could lose money, possibly contracts and future sub-contracting work. Most of these drivers are former employed drivers or see no real difference between themselves and Shell and other drivers, and were willing to put solidarity first, despite the risks.

This solidarity by other workers meant that Unite was not able to keep the Shell drivers isolated from the rest of the class with their ‘own' demands against ‘their' boss. Instead other drivers saw the Shell drivers' strike as part of their common struggle because they are under the same attacks. It also threatened to explode into wider solidarity movements as the situation at Grangemouth showed. Thus, despite the unions and bosses stitching together a deal little different to the one the workers had rejected, the Shell and other workers came away from the struggle with a greater sense of their own ability to struggle and above all of the importance of solidarity. In this sense it was an invaluable gain for the whole working class.  Phil  4.7.08