Post faces first strike in decade

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Britain faces the prospect of the first national postal strike for a decade after union leaders yesterday ordered a ballot on industrial action in a dispute over hours and working practices.

Leaders of the Communication Workers' Union yesterday declared that stoppages were "almost inevitable" after 11 months of negotiations over a "new way of working" broke down on Wednesday night.

While management registered its intention to engage in an intensive communications campaign with employees over the next few weeks, some have privately conceded that a vote in favour of action looks likely.

The union will urge its 140,000 members to back nationwide stoppages in support of an immediate reduction in the working week from six days to five and a cut in hours.

At the heart of the dispute is suspicion among activists that a plan to introduce team-workingwould bypass the union's own communications structure. There is also deep distrust about the motives of management among ordinary union members, many of whom have taken part in a series of wildcat stoppages over the last 18 months.

Despite repeated denials from management, employees fear there is a "hidden agenda" to drop the second postal delivery thus cutting back on the number of full-time jobs.

The postal executive of the CWU yesterday agreed unanimously to begin balloting their members on 13 May, with the result expected on 2 June at the annual conference in Blackpool. In return for new working practices, management has offered a five-day week and a job guarantee by 2000. A new pay system would increase basic pay from pounds 187 to pounds 211, says management. However, staff would retain only three of their 30 extra allowances. Average earnings would increase by up to pounds 30 to pounds 300 a week although managers will not quantify how much would be "new money".

Alan Johnson, joint general secretary of the CWU, seized on an admission by Brian Thomson, Royal Mail personnel director, that while 70 per cent of employees would earn more, around 30 per cent, who relied on overtime and allowances to make up their pay, would lose out. That was not the basis for a settlement, Mr Johnson said.

Mr Thomson said the service was "on the edge of a precipice". The union was expecting to get a cut in working time without making concessions. But he said negotiations were not complete and Royal Mail was prepared to put extra money on the table.