Petrol supplies to Shell garages were hit yesterday as hundreds of drivers launched a four-day strike in a long-running row over pay which union leaders warned will lead to shortages over the weekend.
Members of the Unite union employed by two companies on Shell contracts walked out at 6am and mounted picket lines which they said drivers from other firms refused to cross.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged both sides to resume negotiations, adding that contingency plans were in place to minimise disruption to the public.
Industry officials said there were no reports of panic-buying by drivers, one maintaining: “We are genuinely not seeing increased demand.”
But there were reports of drivers topping up their tanks with small amounts of fuel or filling up spare cans, despite pleas from the UK Government not to buy more petrol than usual.
Unite officials said the action was “solidly” supported, and warned that the strike will have a worsening effect on supplies to Shell garages over the weekend.
At Shell’s refinery in Stanlow, Ellesmere Port, all 150 drivers on Shell contracts at the site were on strike.
Unite joint leader Tony Woodley joined strikers on the picket line at Stanlow and said he was “bitterly disappointed” that extensive talks in the last two days had not resolved the dispute. He added: “What we are asking for is a basic wage of £36,000.” He said the two haulage firms involved in the dispute, Hoyer and Suckling, did not have money to settle the union claim because Shell was being “greedy”.
Business Secretary John Hutton said it was “extremely disappointing” the talks had broken down and he urged both sides to resume negotiations. He said: “The strike, which will have a disproportionate effect on people in Britain, cannot be justified.”
A spokesman for Shell said: “Our primary concern is for motorists who may be inconvenienced as a result of the industrial action.”
Hoyer and Suckling Transport said they had put two offers to the union yesterday — an increase for this year of 7.3% backdated to January 1 2008, which would take average earnings to over £39,000, with a further 6% increase from January 1, 2009, which would take earnings to around £41,500.
The firms said they asked the union to suspend the strike and put the offers to a ballot of the workers but accused Unite of refusing.