U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called on the Unite labor union and employers to hold talks on averting a strike by fuel-truck drivers as the government stepped up contingency plans to cope with any gasoline shortage.
Drivers in the Unite union working for fuel-distribution companies whose customers include Tesco Plc, J. Sainsbury Plc, BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc voted this week to strike in protest at working conditions and changes to their pensions. The union said today it’s eager to begin negotiations while the government-funded Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service said it’s in “urgent discussions” with both sides.
“A strike would be completely irresponsible,” Cameron told reporters in London today. “What needs to happen is for unions and employers to sit down and discuss these issues.”
Cameron’s office said after a meeting of the government’s “Cobra” emergency committee today that the two sides need to reach agreement on preventing “irresponsible industrial action that threatens the nation with economic and social disruption.” It said contingency plans were being readied to ensure the flow of fuel supplies and to minimize disruption to the public.
“The government has learnt lessons from the past and stands ready to act to manage the impact of any strike, in particular, to our emergency and essential services,” the premier’s office said in an e-mailed statement. The Cobra meeting “looked to further measures to strengthen the resilience of the fuel supply including by increasing the potential number of military drivers and by maximizing the levels of fuel storage capacity outside of depots.”
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said earlier today that while about 200 military teams will be trained to drive tank-trucks in the event of a strike, this won’t be enough to prevent disruption.
In 2000, protests about the high price of gasoline outside oil refineries by farmers and truck drivers led to panic-buying, nationwide shortages and rationing. A strike could hit supplies to 90 percent of Britain’s 8,700 gas stations.
“There is no shortage of fuel at present and forecourts are being replenished,” Cameron’s office said.
Maude said people would be wise to ensure their cars were topped up, and to have a spare jerry can of fuel at home. Cameron told drivers that while there’s “no need to queue,” they should ensure their car is full of fuel “if they can.”
The Fire Brigades Union, which represents firefighters, attacked Maude, saying his advice to store gasoline or diesel at home would “massively” increase the risk of blazes and explosions.
‘Little Practical Help’
“There is a real danger the public will start storing fuel in inappropriate ways if the government is encouraging panic buying and storage,” FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack said in a statement. “It is already against the law to store more than 10 liters of petrol in two proper five-liter plastic containers in the home. As that amounts to little more than a third of a tank in most cars the advice is of little practical help.”
“We are in urgent discussions with the parties involved on an individual basis,” ACAS said in a statement. “It is normal for us to do this to establish the format for talks. There are eight parties involved in this dispute -- Unite and seven contractors.”
“We welcome the prospect of exploratory talks,” Unite Assistant General Secretary Diana Holland said in an e-mailed statement. “The minimum standards we are seeking are no different from those covering other parts of the oil industry. We trust that the employers, and the supply chain, including oil majors, will engage with us and that the government will do everything in their power to help us avoid industrial action.”
Unite has 28 days to set a strike date, for which it must give seven days’ notice.
“What both sides need to do is get into those talks,” opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said in televised comments from Redditch in the English Midlands. “Industrial action needs to be avoided at all costs.”
“The government should not be ramping up the rhetoric,” Miliband said. “It should be stepping up the negotiations.”
Cameron said earlier he had no desire “to raise the temperature” with unions any more than necessary, but contingency planning had to take place.