Postal workers have voted in favour of a national strike in a bitter row over jobs, pay and services, threatening widespread disruption to mail deliveries in the coming weeks, it was announced today.
The Communication Workers Union said its members backed a nationwide walkout by 3-1 in protest at the "imposition" of changes to working practices as well as cuts in their pay and job losses.
The union will have to give seven days notice of a strike, raising the threat of industrial action across the country by the end of the month, just two years after the last national stoppage.
The CWU said 76 per cent of those who took part in the ballot voted for a strike.
Deputy general secretary Dave Ward said: "This is a huge vote of no confidence in Royal Mail management. The company has tried to make out that problems only exist in some local offices, but postal workers across the UK have now spoken and they say no to Royal Mail's arrogance.
"Royal Mail has never really been engaged in modernisation. They've been running down the business, running down services and cutting costs and it's that business plan that postal workers have overwhelmingly rejected today.
"There's still an opportunity to reach an agreement before any national strike action takes place.
"We need a national agreement which secures a fair deal on modernisation and reward for the efforts of postal workers in transforming the business. We want reassurances on job security, covering both redundancies and full-time part-time ratios.
"Crucial to an agreement is fair workloads with agreed standards of measurement. Constantly disciplining postal workers will not improve efficiencies but will drive an ever bigger wedge between workers and what they are told is modernisation.
"We've seen cuts and increased workloads and now we need an agreed roll-out of real modernisation. Aligning the interests of customers, employees and the company as a whole is a prerequisite for the successful modernisation of Royal Mail.
"The Government must act now to resolve the pensions deficit which is crippling the Royal Mail's finances and chances to modernise effectively."
Almost 81,000 CWU members took part in the ballot, a turnout of 67 per cent. A total of 61,623 backed strikes, with 19,207 against, a majority of 76.24 per cent.
Postal affairs minister Lord Young said: "A national postal strike is completely self defeating and will only serve to hurt consumers and businesses who rely on the post and drive even more people away from using mail as a means of communication.
"Royal Mail must modernise and these strikes will slow down that essential process. The amount of mail being posted continues to fall dramatically and the company's financial position is precarious. Management and the unions have to resolve their differences and work together on the change necessary to safeguard the future of the company."
Robert Hammond, post expert at Consumer Focus, said: "It's hugely disappointing to watch a great UK institution tear itself apart.
"We call on Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union to urgently ask for Acas intervention to resolve this dispute.
"A prolonged strike over Christmas could cripple the service and will lead to a miserable time for consumers and businesses alike.
"The bottom line is that there are no winners in this dispute. Royal Mail customers are already finding alternative ways of communicating and many will not return once the dispute is over.
"Post users should consider what the disruption will mean for them. People will need to rely on telephone, email or fax.
"To avoid extra charges, consumers expecting bills should call the company in advance and arrange an alternative way to pay - such as phone, online or at a bank or post office.
"We are urging companies that are heavy users of the post service - such as Amazon or eBay - to make their plans clear on their websites, especially if the strike continues in the run up to Christmas.
"Banks and credit card companies should also show flexibility when considering late payment charges incurred as a result of delayed mail.
"Failure to modernise the postal service is a long-term problem and must be addressed. There's been a lack of focus since Lord Mandelson announced that the Government would not proceed with the Postal Services Bill. As the shareholder, the Government must come up with a plan that delivers modernisation."
Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "This strike announcement defies logic at a time when businesses and Government are working hard to move the UK economy back to growth. Postal delays are already hurting small businesses and major companies across the country.
"At a time when businesses are taking drastic measures to keep as many people in employment as possible, the CWU's call for strike action in the run-up to the busy Christmas period is akin to a death wish."