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TODAY’S Daily Telegraph front-page lead, “Unions holding Christmas hostage,” and quoting the Department of Transport, was a blatant piece of anti-union scaremongering.
The paper accused the Unite union of threatening to launch “the largest lorry drivers’ strike since 1979” by balloting thousands of supermarket and delivery drivers.
The fact is that there is already a crisis in the HGV industry, with an estimated shortfall of 100,000 drivers. It has led to gaps on supermarket shelves, deficits in deliveries to filling stations, and now to diversion of big cargo ships from Felixstowe port, which handles 36 per cent of Britain’s containerised freight.
Yet the crisis hasn’t just happened suddenly. Already at the beginning of August, Unite was castigating the government and haulage industry bosses for “dragging their feet” over the escalating driver shortage, and was calling on them to sit down with the union to come up with a blueprint for a way forward “so that the transport arteries of the nation are kept open now and in the future.”
Unite proposed a six-point plan to alleviate the crisis: improved pay and conditions; tackling the lack of diversity in the industry; simplifying driving hours’ rules; making better parking and facilities a priority; toughening up sanctions for employers denying drivers access to basic facilities; and shifting the cost of accreditation from drivers to employers.
Those proposals were ignored, and the government basically sat on its hands, except for extending the temporary relaxation on drivers’ maximum daily hours, allowing overseas drivers to come into Britain for up to six months, announcing today that EU drivers on British roads will be allowed unlimited pick-ups and drop-offs in a 14-day period.
These are not long-term solutions — and it is debatable whether they will even work in the short term.
Unite’s national officer for commercial road transport Adrian Jones tweeted on Thursday: “Visited Felixstowe today and couldn’t help but point out the closure of the Orwell Crossing lorry park [near Ipswich]. We need to change the job from the bottom up, starting with publicly funded facilities.”
For the drivers, it’s not simply a case of taking advantage of the shortage situation — though there would be nothing wrong with that as a good trade union principle.
The drivers have had enough. What the Covid pandemic has shown them is that they haven’t been valued as key workers. Now, they aren’t prepared to tolerate poor pay and working conditions any longer.
Unite has already scored some victories in road haulage recently. After threatening strike action, drivers at the DHL site near Dartford Crossing, one of Sainsbury’s main distribution hubs, secured a significant pay rise. In Wigan, drivers for Heinz gained an end to the two-tier workforce, and a pay rise which for many will be 25-36 per cent.
The Torygraph was completely over the top in comparing any lorry drivers’ strikes — not yet balloted on — with the “winter of discontent” and in saying that “the country cannot be held to ransom.”
But its report does reflect ruling-class concern that, at a time of inflation and rising energy prices, other workers might follow the HGV drivers’ example.
There are signs of that already. Britain’s bus network is also short of drivers — some 4,000 — due to poor pay and working conditions; and the RMT union has served notice on Stagecoach in the South West, East Midlands and Derbyshire/Yorkshire for strike action from Monday.
Unite is also planning a strike for the first week in November in Stagecoach North East — where drivers voted overwhelmingly to back action over a pay increase and harmonisation between depots — and at Stagecoach in Scotland, Wales, North Yorkshire, south Derbyshire and Kent.
These workers deserve solidarity from the whole trade union movement, and resistance to the Torygraph’s editorial suggestion that “The government should do everything in its power to stop the unions from worsening the crisis the country already faces” — a crisis which the government has failed to prevent.
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