Stewart Beaton, is National Executive London and South East regional representative and branch secretary of Community’s tanker drivers’ branch at XPO Logistics in Thurrock.
It’s a well-known fact within the petroleum distribution industry that the “elite” or “blue chip” contracts with high wages and good conditions are those that are totally unionised.
Trade unions and oil companies have enjoyed historic relationships for many years, and many of the terms and conditions that were forged in the 1950s, 60s and 70s are still relevant today. There are oil company contracts that still recognise these agreements, but what of the relative newcomers to the fuel industry – the companies that privately shun trade union recognition?
It would probably be fair to say that many hauliers treat fuel distribution in the same way they treat all of their logistics – get the fuel to the forecourts as quickly and as cheaply as possible, backsides on seats and don’t spare the horses.
That was my first experience of fuel logistics when I arrived at Thurrock back in 2005. Our terms and conditions were, to say the least, basic. In fact you just couldn’t get more basic – a low hourly rate, time and a half for Sundays and bank holidays, flat basic hours for holiday pay, and a sick pay scheme that paid about 25 percent of your regular wage. Pensions were never mentioned, and all this was backed up by a productivity scheme that was inherently unfair and totally unacceptable. It’s hard to imagine now how bad things really were. Driver turnover was through the roof, and loading and delivery errors were rife. With no input from the workforce and a virtually non-existent and toothless union, this was to set the pattern for the next four years.
There had been shop stewards over the years, but very few had much experience. Union membership was low – exceptionally low for a fuels distribution depot of 180 drivers. Membership was around 35. In the climate of fear that was created, it was believed that union membership would indeed not only put a target on your back but would have a negative effect on your earning capability. To say that joining the union was not a great career move would have been an understatement.
An unfortunate accident meant yet another steward was forced to quit the job and a new steward was elected, unopposed as usual, a seemingly poisoned chalice. There was, however, a fundamental difference. This steward had experience – a lot of experience – and a lot of ideas, some good, some not so good.
As I was on a different shift pattern, I never had much interaction with the new steward, so most of the things he said were reiterated second or third hand, so I decided to join the union and attend a meeting to hear for myself what he had to say.
I found myself thinking that I’ve got some good ideas of my own in regards to terms and conditions, and slowly but surely our contribution to the workplace practices and branch as a whole became very significant.
The difference union membership made
Ten years on, I look back at that contribution, and see:
- a daily guarantee underpinned with a decent hourly rate;
- overtime and weekend premiums that are fair for all;
- extra holiday days and a holiday pay system that’s easy to calculate and very rewarding;
- a pension scheme that’s greatly improved and has a realistic fallback rate honoured by the company;
- a decent sick pay system and a financial reward for those who don’t claim sickness payments;
- a benevolent fund that supports our members when the sick pay is exhausted;
- a private medical insurance agreement that helps both our members and the company by greatly reducing absence times; plus
- a cash-back scheme that reimburses members when they need optical, dental and a whole host of consultation and physiotherapy treatments.
Finally, this year we managed to secure a generous redundancy and retirement agreement that has helped members who feel like they no longer need to work right up to retirement age. The added security of a redundancy package means that, as fossil fuel dependency fades, there’s a financial safety net in place.
There are many other workplace issues that we’ve been involved in, such as the change in shift rotas to help give a better work-life balance, and pushing the company in the right direction where the Equalities Act is concerned.
The logistics membership under our stewardship has grown beyond all recognition, expanding into all areas of the country, including Northern Ireland. We have preserved members’ jobs during the pandemic and overseen workplace practices to cope with the ever-changing industry that we are involved in.
In ten years, I have progressed from becoming a member, to taking up the challenge of stewardship, into a branch secretary role, and now election to the NEC of the most member-focused union in the country.
Along the way, I’ve received support from my local stewards, full-time officials, national officers and even the General Secretary, all of whom have played an important part of where I am today.
The logistics industry is ever evolving, and an educated and informed membership is a key factor in future trade union involvement. The new generation of logistics workers will need to see results in the workplace to have the belief in the trade union representation that those fuel drivers of long ago had. The proof that this can be achieved is reflected in the support that the Thurrock representatives have, the length and breadth of the country – a representation I’m exceptionally proud to be a part of.
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