Drivers of Suttons Tankers at the Eastham refinery, near Ellesmere Port, have begun an indefinite strike in their fight against attacks on their wages, terms and conditions.

On 18 December the management of Suttons Tankers served the 33 workers at the refinery with a 30-day consultation notice. In a move that showed no willingness to negotiate, they declared that if staff did not sign new contracts by 19 January they would be summarily dismissed and re-engaged on the new terms and conditions. With the gauntlet thrown down, the workers, represented by Unite, moved swiftly into action and organised themselves to meet this challenge.

Due to the serious, hard work of the reps and officers it took only 8 days to ballot for industrial action. On a 97% turnout, the Suttons Tankers voted 100% in favour of this strike action. The 14 days’ notice for strike action, which is compulsory under the Tories’ anti-union legislation, had already been given. So when negotiations broke down with management on Thursday of last week the strike began at 12.01am on Friday 19 January.

The workers are not asking for a raise, they’re not asking for improvements to their terms and conditions. All they are asking for is for management to genuinely discuss with the union some form of settlement and for them to remove the enforced redundancies.

The new contract

The new contract would mean a real-terms cut to the living standards of the tanker drivers who are already doing a very difficult job. The new contract includes an extra 10 hrs of work a week, 7 days less holiday per year and a lowering of the contribution paid by the company into the workers’ pensions. The 33 workers involved in the dispute are set to lose an average of a third of their current annual salary if the new contracts are put in place.

In the lead up to the strike, David Newman, a shunter employed by Suttons told The Chester Standard:

“The last thing I wanted to do was go on strike but the alternative is to take a step backwards more than 20 years as that would be the pay and conditions I would be condemning my family to.”

“If this goes ahead as it is there would be a very real chance of me losing my property. I would be losing close to £400 a week which I just can’t afford. I’ve been here 16 years and at my time of life where else would I go?”

Eastham refinery and bitumen production

The Eastham refinery is one of the few in the UK which still make bitumen, a product predominantly used in the construction industry. It is currently used by both Nynas and Shell who used outsourced tanker drivers to transport their products to and from the site near Ellesmere Port. The concentration of this role in production into the hands of a relatively few workers means they’re in a strong position to affect the plant itself, and thus cut into the profit margins of both companies.

Up until a few years ago the tanker drivers involved in this dispute were employed directly by Nynas, until their roles were outsourced to Suttons Tankers. Ever since this happened there has been a concerted effort by the new management to break the union and to impose worse terms and conditions in a blatant attempt to squeeze as much profit out of them as they can. This included a period of voluntary redundancies which removed 19 other drivers from the workforce and has culminated in this recent attack.

Picket line solidarity

On Saturday night the word was sent round requesting people to get down to the picket line on Sunday as it was expected that management would make an attempt to break the strike.

Liverpool Marxist Society were on the picket line for a few hours, from 11am until 2pm, offering our solidarity and talking to the tanker drivers. The request from the workers was met with a solid response from the labour movement. Throughout the day, people turned up with food, drinks, wood for the fire to keep the workers warm and their friends, family and comrades to stand and show their support. We were even joined by some of the Labour Party councillors and MPs who have openly came out and backed the striking tanker drivers.

Despite the cold and rainy weather, there was nothing that could have dampened the spirits of those on strike. At one point there was a sound system playing ska and reggae whilst a couple of the lads had a football to kick around. This is not to say that the mood on the picket line was frivolous, in fact it was very serious. But rather it demonstrates the effect that concrete solidarity and support can have in buoying up the spirits of workers in struggle.

One of the workers told us:

“We’ve learnt a hell of a lot in the last few days. When we had heard about strikes of workers in the past we didn’t really think a lot about the idea of solidarity but we’ve seen the support that we’ve been given. The next time we see something happening, whether it be a strike or something else, we won’t think twice about getting stuck in and helping out.”

We were given a very warm and friendly welcome by all of the tanker drivers we met and we were very happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they strike.

Liverpool Marxist Society will continue to do what we can to publicise this action and to encourage other students and workers, around Liverpool and Merseyside, to get to the picket lines to show their solidarity. We are also in discussions with some of the reps and officers of Unite and we have invited them to come and speak to our next public meeting on Tuesday 30 January.

Not a wheel turns without the kind permission of the working class

At 4pm on Sunday, after just over two days of strike action, it was announced that all production of bitumen would be cancelled at the Eastham refinery. This shows the strength of this section of the workforce once they move into action.

There is also a boat that has been docked in the river Mersey all night, waiting to unload its materials for transport to the Eastham refinery. As the refinery is already packed up, and because not a single tanker is driving in or out, there is nothing for this boat to do but sit and wait. This is costing the owners of the boat £40,000 a day, and as the strike continues the cost will climb even higher for the bosses.

The overwhelming mood on the picket lines was one of optimism and determination. If the management at Suttons Tankers thought that they would be able to steamroll over the workers and force them onto the new contracts they’ve certainly been given a shock. There will be even more to come if they think that this strike will be broken easily. The tanker drivers are settling in for the long haul and with the solidarity and support of those in the local area, alongside their position in production, there is a genuine chance to force management back to the negotiating table. This will especially be the case once the strike starts to hit them in the profit margins, where it hurts them the most.

by Gilly Singh, Liverpool Marxists

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