Fuel strike: don't believe the hype, no one wants a walkout

Negotiations expert Clive Rich examines the likely outcome of threats by fuel tanker drivers to strike.

Fuel tankers

'A strike would be bad news for everybody'

A lot of the details of this dispute have been obscured by the newsworthiness of potential strikes, potential shortages, and government advice on how to deal with these potential outcomes. All of that has rather obscured the details of how this situation arose in the first place and how it might be resolved now.

The main issue seems to be more to do with working conditions than pay, and Unite's members obviously feel these issues are not being properly addressed. They've reached for the strike weapon as a way of exerting pressure to try and force a resolution in their favour.

In reality, a strike will be bad news for everybody - not only for the companies, and the public who will be disrupted, but also for the union workers.

The threat of strike holds much greater power than it does in action. Once a strike takes place, workarounds will be achieved, and it will be realised that the world does not end if these drivers do not work. This will force Unite into a corner and make negotiations ever harder. It is therefore vital that a resolution be reached before that point.

The first step towards this is getting both sides into mediation meetings. ACAS, the conciliatory service will be behind the scenes trying to do this right now - speaking with both sides and trying to get them into talks.

One of the main problems at the moment though is that both parties seem somewhat stuck on their positions - unable to put their armour aside and think about addressing the motivations of those they are negotiating with. Normally in these situations if you can actually start considering meeting the other side's underlying needs rather than just satisfying your own stated position, then you are in a position to get far more of what you want in return. Alternatively, finding some values which they both have in common and which are more important than the issue which divide them would also provide a constructive way forward. No doubt both sides, for example, would agree that they want to create a viable and safe industry for all.

Right now, both the union and the companies seem unwilling to do this. The two sides are equally guilty of adopting a positional stance and broadcasting that to the nation through a megaphone, saying: "this is what we're standing for and the other side are wrong because..." The Government too have not helped - wading in with some very strong statements condemning strike action.

That, in my experience does not advance negotiations. Having these strong statements made in public hardens positions for two reasons. Firstly no one likes reading unpleasant statements about themselves in the press. Secondly it also makes it harder for either side to make concessions or compromise, as neither want to be seen to back down.

My instinct in this case is that an agreement will be met. Due to the 7 days notice of strike required from the unions, there is still a fair amount of time before industrial action could actually occur. This should give enough time for talks to succeed.

For this to happen however, both parties need to join in mediation, consider the needs of the other side, find some common values which are more successful than the issues which divide them and reach a successful resolution away from the glare and interference of the media.


  • Clive Rich is a professional negotiator who has brokered £10bn worth of deals for a broad spectrum of multi-nationals, major organisations and super-brands, including Sony, Yahoo, Apple, Napster, BMG and the BBC.