The threat of a national post strike came a step closer yesterday as more than 120,000 postmen and women prepared to start voting on industrial action. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) said ballot papers would be sent out today in its long-running row over pay, jobs and services.
The dispute has sparked a series of walkouts across the country over the past few months which has disrupted mail deliveries. With millions of letters and parcels sat undelivered in sorting offices, the CWU called a new ballot to decide whether or not to take all-out nationwide action. The result is due early next month.
Dave Ward, the CWU deputy general secretary, said: "Postal workers are striking to defend future services as well as for jobs and modern conditions. Royal Mail management has completely mishandled the situation.
"Disruption is hurting small businesses and other consumers, but postal workers are suffering more than anyone in the dispute. Small businesses stand to suffer more with reduced services in the future if Royal Mail does not reach a national agreement." In a surprise move, the chief executive of Royal Mail, Adam Crozier, wrote to newspaper editors in an attempt to quieten the rising unrest caused by what he called the "totally unjustified" launch of the ballot.
He said: "I want to stress that we are doing everything we can to minimise the impact of strikes on customers in those areas where the union has called strikes, and to do all we can to persuade the CWU to stop the action and get on with helping us to deliver the service on which so many depend. The position today is that around nine million items of mail are delayed – compared with the average daily mailbag of 75 million – with almost six million of those in London.
"However, we are very concerned about every single letter delayed and we apologise wholeheartedly to our customers for the difficulties caused by the CWU's strikes, and will of course continue to work hard to limit the disruption as much as we can." Hospitals have been forced to rearrange outpatient services because mail delays have caused many patients to miss appointments.
A spokesman for Queen Mary's Hospital in Roehampton, south-west London, said: "We are telephoning patients whose appointments are within a short timeframe, and are sending letters by recorded delivery."
Several readers told The Independent their postman had claimed that sorting office workers were deliberately delaying particular items, such as gifts and rented DVDs, to cause maximum disruption.
Royal Mail said: "That would be a serious breach of [their] contracts."
Breaking the strike: White van man rides to the rescue
As the postal dispute escalates, Royal Mail has turned to "white van man" in an attempt to ease the effects of the strikes across Britain. Owing to the recession, there is no shortage of men with vans happy to come to the rescue.
Nader Moradie, 47, had been applying for 20 jobs a day since his computer services business folded last year – then he saw an advert on the internet. "They said they were looking for drivers with a van and insurance," he said. "I didn't have either, so I bought a van, went through a security check and then I started work."
Mr Moradie, from Archway, north London, has been clearing the capital's backlog of undelivered mail for almost two months. "I am self-employed, working almost six days a week, 12 hours a day," he said yesterday on his round in Wimbledon. "I am not making as much as when I had my own company, but I have a job when millions of people are unemployed."
His employer, CRT, was set up in 2002 when the delivery company Parcelforce allowed its drivers to work on a self-employed basis. CRT now has more than 100 drivers, and could do with more.
It is not the first time that Royal Mail, which cannot sub-contract work because of agreements with the union, has used CRT during a strike. The company's founder, Petar Ljubisic, said: "During the 2007 strike we cleared the whole SW4 depot in 10 days. The Royal Mail lot couldn't believe it. The unions hate us."