Lorry driver shortage: strike threat at two firms increases supply chain fears

Staff at Tesco-owned Booker and cement producer Hanson move closer to industrial action

The threat of strike action by lorry drivers at two firms supplying the construction industry and convenience stores has raised the prospect of further disruption this autumn amid Britain’s worst supply chain meltdown since the 1970s.

A group of drivers at the Booker distribution network, which is part of Tesco, and more than 200 drivers and engineers at Hanson, the cement producer, have moved closer to industrial action in disputes over pay and conditions.

Union leaders warned the pay disputes risked deepening the supply shortage crisis hitting many parts of the British economy because of a lack of HGV drivers, coming after years of firms underpaying staff and offering poor working conditions.

About 40 drivers employed by Booker at its Thamesmead site in south-east London have voted unanimously for strike action in a dispute over pay – a move that risks severe disruption to deliveries at more than 1,500 small shops operating under the Londis and Budgens brands across the capital and the south-east.

Meanwhile, more than 200 lorry drivers and engineers employed by Hanson, on the Castle Cement contract, will hold a ballot for strike action after rejecting a pay offer, raising the threat of further disruption in the construction sector.

The drivers supply several key construction projects across the UK, including the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, the HS2 rail line, the Sellafield nuclear decommissioning plant and the Thames Tideway super sewer project.

The threat of strike action comes as severe shortages of workers and raw materials trigger widespread disruption across the British economy, in a crisis caused by the fallout from Covid, Brexit and years of underinvestment.

Unite, the trade union representing both sets of workers, said the disputes reflected issues with working conditions and pay.

At Booker, the union is poised to issue the employer with notice for strike action but wants to allow time for crunch talks with company bosses later this month that could still avert industrial action.

The dispute centres on the firm paying a temporary £5 an hour uplift for about 40 drivers at its Hemel Hempstead depot in response to staff shortages – a move not replicated less than 50 miles away at Thamesmead.

Paul Travers, a Unite regional officer, said the dispute had been “pockmarked by very poor employment relations” with the company. “This is really ‘smell the coffee’ time for the bosses at Booker.”

A Booker spokesman said: “We are naturally disappointed with last week’s ballot result from our Thamesmead drivers but look forward to sitting down with their Unite representatives on 21 September and working together to find a resolution.”

Drivers and engineers at Hanson have rejected a pay offer of 2.5% for this year, which union leaders said amounted to a “hefty pay cut”, with the retail price index measure of inflation running at 3.9%.

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In addition to pay, the workforce is unhappy about the high-handed management style and a marked lack of dignity at work. If strikes do occur, then large and small construction projects will swiftly run short of cement as many only have limited storage facilities, Unite said.

Adrian Jones, a Unite national officer, said the solution was in the company’s hands. “The company needs to return to the negotiating table and demonstrate genuine changes to the way our members are managed and make an offer on pay that reflects the current challenges in the industry and the commitment our members give to the company,” he said.

“With the ongoing driver shortage, our members are seeking a pay increase which recognises their hard work and dedication.”

Contributor

Richard Partington Economics correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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