An employee relations adviser has compared Unite's attempts to agree national minimum standards for fuel-tanker drivers, employed by seven different companies, to getting all the major UK supermarkets to agree unified pay and working conditions for their checkout staff.
Unite has called for minimum standards for fuel-tanker drivers and industry-wide bargaining on pensions, terms and conditions, training and health and safety.
The union says the dispute is not about pay, but about ensuring high safety and training standards are maintained and about bringing "fairness and stability" back into the industry.
However, Andy Cook, chief executive of employee relations advisory firm Marshall-James, commented that the union's insistence on agreeing national negotiations for drivers, regardless of their employer, was similar to all the biggest UK supermarkets agreeing unified pay and conditions for their employees.
"What seems to be at the heart of the dispute is the union's desire to get one common set of terms and working practices across the whole group, regardless of who the employer is," Cook told Personnel Today.
"It is like saying 'let's sit down and agree the national terms and conditions for all checkout assistants working in Sainsbury's, Asda or Tesco'. The employer's not going to want to do that because they are all very different businesses with different ideas and goals and, if they were in the process of having national pay bargaining, it would severely hamper their discretional autonomy as far as employment is concerned."
However, Cook also noted that it was understandable that Unite was trying to set industry-wide standards and bargaining, as it would put them in a much stronger position when resisting demands from any single employer of fuel-tanker drivers to reduce workers' terms and conditions.
"Each of the individual employers is able to set their own terms and conditions, which, unfortunately, means that in order to make more money they probably have started to erode the terms and conditions and benefits enjoyed by the drivers," Cook explains.
"What the union is looking to do is achieve a common set of conditions, which are not the lowest common denominator."
Negotiations between Unite and representatives of the seven fuel tanker companies ran late into the night yesterday without resolution and resumed again this morning.
If strike action does occur, it will be after the Easter break as the union must give seven days' notice before legal strike action can take place.
A poll published today by the Institute of Directors (IoD) found that 82% of business leaders expect any fuel strikes to have a negative impact on their business, with 40% believing that it will have a significant impact.
In the light of the findings, the IoD has urged both employers and Unite to "settle their differences swiftly" and without strike action to avoid disruption to the wider economy.
Simon Walker, director general of the IoD, commented: "Our members are very worried about the impact this strike will have on their businesses, which is adding uncertainty to an already difficult economic climate. The last thing business needs at the moment is for staff not to be able to get to work and deliveries being haltered in their tracks.
"This dispute is between one union and seven companies - they must sort it out between themselves, not make everyone else suffer because of their disagreement."