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Pouring oil on troubled waters

The start of a four-day strike by hundreds of oil tanker drivers brings a new angle to the energy crisis which is convulsing countries around the world. The drivers are employed by contractors Hoyer and Suckling, two haulage companies delivering Shell fuel products to one tenth of UK garages.

The drivers’ union Unite says that Shell tanker drivers today earn a basic wage of just under £32,000 per year for a 48-hour working week. In 1992, a typical tanker driver directly employed by Shell earned approximately the same £32,000 per year for a 37-hour week. This is a truly catastrophic 16-year decline in the value of weekly income combined with an almost 30% increase in hours.

It is stark evidence of the typical, brutal increase in the rate of exploitation by global corporations and the less-than-worthless state of trade union leadership. Desperate to avoid a confrontation, Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey has been begging Shell to intervene – to no avail.

Now rocketing worldwide inflation – ironically driven by the commodity the drivers deliver – has triggered a social movement that is spreading like last summer’s wildfires. In Asia this week there have been strikes and demonstrations in South Korea, Hong Kong, India and Malaysia, where the government has raised prices by 41% for petrol and 63% for diesel.

In Europe, action by truck drivers in Spain led to 40% of petrol stations in Catalonia running dry, and stocks of fresh food running low in the markets and shops. Drivers in Portugal joined in the strikes and there have been protests in France. Spanish fishermen, driven to desperation by fuel costs, have been on strike since May 30. One trucker died this week in Spain and another in Portugal. In both cases they were run over while manning picket lines.

The chief executive of Russia's Gazprom this week warned that crude oil might go as high as $250 a barrel next year, far in excess of the record $139 a barrel reached last week. Meanwhile BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy attributes the spiralling price to a continuing increase in the demand for oil whilst global production has been falling. In Russia, BP is in conflict with the four billionaire shareholders in TNK-BP, the largest foreign venture in Russia by a single company. TNK-BP made $5.3 billion net profit in 2007 and produces a quarter of BP's global oil output.

The oil price and supply crisis is fuelling tensions globally. In the Middle East, tensions are rising as Israel and the US are colluding to increase the threat to bomb Iran, with Barack Obama promising to use whatever means are necessary to destroy the country’s nuclear fuel capacity.

Dealing with this festering stew of inter-related crises means taking the energy industries into social ownership and eliminating for-profit production. Only democratic stewardship of limited resources can protect the world’s population from the twin threats of depletion and climate change. Transition Initiatives must take these questions on board if action on energy reduction is to have any but a symbolic significance.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
13 June 2008

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