Post staff strike early for Christmas

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The Independent Online
Leaders of 138,000 postal workers are today expected to announce a vote for fresh industrial action which could seriously disrupt Christmas mail.

Three-quarters of the postal workers - similar to the proportion which voted in the first ballot - are believed to have given the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) a decisive new mandate for action.

Management and the union have already started informal negotiations behind the scenes in anticipation of a Yes vote. The talks are likely be put on an official footing later this week. The union will then have to stage its first stoppage within 28 days, meaning that walkouts could coincide with the Christmas rush.

Both senior managers and Alan Johnson, joint general secretary of the CWU, said yesterday that exploratory discussions had shown there was a basis for negotiation. "The important thing for our members, the business and the public is that the service suffers the minimum amount of disruption while the Royal Mail and ourselves settle our differences," Mr Johnson said.

The ballot result raises the prospect of a three-month suspension of the Royal Mail's letters monopoly and comes in the wake of eight stoppages by delivery and sorting office workers which cost an estimated pounds 40m. Ministers lifted the monopoly for a month during the summer, but have warned that more walkouts would result in a longer suspension.

It also comes at a politically sensitive time for the Labour Party, with only seven months to go before the general election.

Moderate sources in the union, who are unhappy about the prospect of further action, say they are convinced their members have voted for more disruption. "They would vote against the Royal Mail on any issue at the moment," one official said. Members of the CWU at the Post Office also have a long history of backing their leadership, which has urged them to vote yes.

A MORI poll of postal workers, partly commissioned by the union, discovered overwhelming support for a re- ballot to reinvigorate the campaign of industrial action.

Senior managers, who also expect a mandate for fresh stoppages, are prepared to offer more money in return for the efficiency measures which include the introduction of team-working. However, the extra money is expected to come from cash already earmarked for the annual wage rise which was due in pay packets from the beginning of this month.

The offer presently on the table gives postal workers a 15 per cent increase in basic pay, from pounds 183.10 to pounds 211, but the impact on total earnings varies widely. Some senior employees who rely heavily on weekend working could see their pensionable pay decrease.

If industrial action goes ahead, management is expected to the deduction of CWU subscriptions from pay packets on behalf of the union.

More important for union members are management warnings of redundancies if the monopoly is lifted. As a "worse case scenario" an internal Royal Mail paper predicts that 30,000 employees could be forced on to the dole over the next five years if private competitors become established.

Ministers have indicated that they could come under pressure to allow private operators to continue their letter delivery services indefinitely once the monopoly was suspended. The Royal Mail document argues that competitors may invoke European competition legislation in order to continue their operations.

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