Postal dispute takes strike rate to highest for 6 years

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The Independent Online
A fifth one-day strike by postal workers yesterday brought mail deliveries to a standstill as new figures showed a huge increase in the number of working days lost in Britain to industrial action. The dispute has contributed to figures which show 228,000 days were lost in June, the highest monthly figure since March 1990.

Despite appearing to be no more than a hair's breadth from agreement, both sides in the postal dispute stood their ground, with management claiming that more employees turned up for work than during the last one-day strike, and the union claiming it had a stranglehold on deliveries.

The Communication Workers' Union and management have agreed on seven elements of an eight-point deal after lengthy negotiations at Acas. But the union's executive refuses to agree to management plans to introduce "teamworking", in which groups of workers take more responsibility for deliveries in specified areas.

A spokesman for the union said the teamworking proposals were vague and untested. However, he added: "We do agree that change is needed, but we want to get back to the table and talk about it. We believe teamworking has real flaws, which will result in more responsibility and stress for people who, in some cases, are already working a six-day week for a basic wage of less than pounds 10,000 a year."

Ironically, the Royal Mail appeared to agree. A spokeswoman said: "The agreement at Acas recognised that both sides needed to talk further about this. We don't have any hard and fast ideas about teamworking other than it will result in more flexibility and will give employees more control over what they do. We would like to talk further about it so we can get it right."

The Royal Mail claimed more than 18,000 people turned up for work by the end of the day shift. A spokesperson said: "This demonstrates a drift back to work and a weakening of the industrial action."

It said two of its mechanised letter offices (MLOs), in Cambridge and Darlington, and a regional distribution centre, in the East Midlands, were working. The union countered that a greater number of MLOs - 82 - were at a standstill.

"There is no point them going on about how many people turned up for work," said a union spokesman. "We don't accept their figures, but even if we did, all it means is that they are paying people to do nothing because there are no mail deliveries."

The union has gained pay rises for its members of between 5 and 15 per cent. But unless agreement over teamworking can be reached, it said one-day strikes would go ahead on 22 and 30 August and on 2 September. The postal dispute is one of several which pushed the number of lost working days to the highest level since 1990. Disputes on London Underground and at the Benefits Agency contributed to the lost days.

Only 278,000 days were lost to industrial action in the whole of 1994, the lowest number since records began. However, the latest figures amount to only a fraction of the unrest in 1979, before Margaret Thatcher came to power, when 29.5 million days were lost.