Postal dispute delivers chaos

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The Independent Online

Millions of people will be without post for the 12th day running because a wildcat Royal Mail strike is spreading yet further across the country, causing a backlog that is already threatening to disrupt Christmas deliveries.

Customers were urged to avoid using the post as managers hoped to reduce the mounting backlog of mail. The number of postal workers involved in unofficial action rose to about 25,000.

Talks broke up between the Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) last night and business leaders warned that the strikes would have a "devastating" impact. The Government was urged to step in as an arbitrator.

With both sides entrenched in a dispute about working conditions, there were also fears of the impact on Christmas mail. A group of 20 charities raised concerns the strike would affect their fund-raising at the busiest time of year.

Neville Bass, the chief executive of Charity Christmas Card Council, said: "This strike has come right at the very peak of the Christmas card ordering period. Both businesses and individuals are unwilling to order cards while there is such great uncertainty of what will happen."

Customers needing to send urgent items, such as passport applications and credit card payments, were advised to use courier companies.

Yesterday, the strike, already affecting deliveries across large areas of the country from the South-east to the North-west, spread to the South-west when employees in Wiltshire and Bristol walked out in support of colleagues who staged the first strike in west London two weeks ago in a dispute about one batch of undelivered mail.

The action looked likely to cause long-term problems for Royal Mail, already struggling to trim losses and forestall the threat of more competition.

Yesterday, the industry regulator, Postcomm, gave clearance to four private-sector firms specialising in business bulk mail to deliver to as many homes as their capacity allows.

Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket, switched its contract from the Royal Mail to Parcelnet to ensure delivery of books within 48 hours. Tesco said: "Christmas is our busiest time and, this year, online book sales look like they're going to go through the roof. Delivery reliability therefore is crucial to our business."

Postal workers joined the strike yesterday in support of colleagues in London.

When delivery staff staged the first walkout in west London two weeks ago, other union members employed as drivers were asked instead to switch roles and make door-to-door deliveries to postcodes normally beyond their patch.

Each of the 27 drivers who refused was told to remove his or her car from the premises and go home. They have been without pay ever since.

The stand-off, a typical symptom of the poor industrial relations at Royal Mail, was noted a few miles away at the Greenford depot, which employs about 900 postal workers handling mail for millions and is known for its shop-floor militancy.

On Monday afternoon, a female postal worker at Greenford was "taken off the payroll" for refusing to wheel a container of mail into the processing hall. Up to 500 of her union colleagues walked out in support.

The strikers in west London insist that it is "nonsense" for Royal Mail to claim the dispute is about the imposition of an across-the-board £300 increase in London weighting of £4,000, which has already caused them to walk out on two one-day strikes. Strikers say they sense management may be pushing for cost-saving reforms after the union recently voted against strike action over pay.

Wildcat strikes, they predict, will continue over issues such as holiday entitlement, overtime, rotas and allegations of bullying over sick leave.

Adam Crozier, the chief executive of Royal Mail, who met Billy Hayes, the CWU general secretary, yesterday, accused union activists of prolonging the dispute and said members were trying to cajole workers across the country to take industrial action.

Mr Crozier said: "What we are seeing is a concerted campaign, orchestrated by union activists, to blatantly force the company to increase the London weighting payment." Mr Crozier, a former head of the Football Association who was hired to turn around Royal Mail when it was losing an estimated £1m a day, said he was looking at legal and disciplinary options.

Union leaders and managers will hold talks today. They will also meet at the conciliation service, Acas, on Monday to find a breakthrough to the dispute.

Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrat trade and industry spokesman, said "urgent arbitration" was needed. He wrote to Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, urging her to end the "deeply damaging" dispute.

What to do

¿ The Royal Mail wants people to post their mail in areas unaffected by the strike if they find their post box sealed

¿ Postwatch, the postal service watchdog, does not recommend this

¿ Postwatch recommends contacting finance firms if payments are likely to arrive late

¿ If a vital document is to be sent for arrival on the following day use a courier

¿ People on benefits can still receive cash in post offices because they are not affected by the strike

¿ Parcelforce is fully functioning

¿ Private-sector postal firms are an alternative for consumers prepared to pay the costs