The Royal Mail faces "catastrophic" nationwide disruption later this month after workers voted overwhelmingly for industrial action in pursuit of a 5 per cent pay increase.
Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) voted by 63 per cent in favour of disrupting services after rejecting a 2 per cent rise. Management registered its "dismay" at the result at a time when the corporation was losing £1m a day and when companies granted licences by the industry's regulator, Postcomm, were eager to profit from any disruption.
Nearly two-thirds of the union membership took part in the ballot although management pointed out this meant just four in 10 of the 145,000 workers balloted opted for industrial action.
Officials at the CWU last night said that a final decision on the kind of action to be take by postal workers could be taken at a national executive meeting next Tuesday. Postal workers were last involved in a national strike in 1996. Among the options are 24-hour stoppages, an overtime ban or a refusal to work on Saturdays – although disruption is unlikely to begin for a fortnight according to union officials.
Some union officials are hoping to avoid industrial action and will seek to use the strike vote as a negotiating tool. Royal Mail has indicated its readiness to offer 2.5 per cent in return for concessions on productivity, although the management has argued that the 2 per cent basic offer is relatively generous at a time when the headline inflation rate stands at only 0.7 per cent.
John Keggie, the deputy general secretary of the CWU, said the ballot result constituted a "very strong mandate" for industrial action. "We want the shadow boxing to stop and serious negotiations to start over terms and conditions." He said the union was willing to meet management at any time without or without the assistance of the conciliation service Acas
He said 63 per cent of postal workers were working a six-day week to make ends meet compared with Allan Leighton, the new chairman of Consignia – the Royal Mail's parent company – who was earning £20,000 a year for one meeting a week. The union is aiming to increase basic pay to £300 a week by October 2003.
A Royal Mail spokesman said the right way to solve the dispute was through Acas. "There's no need to have a strike, and both management and the unions should be committed to avoiding disruption to customers."
He said there had been "constructive" talks over the past two weeks at Acas and progress had been made. Management was prepared to continue negotiations.
"It's regrettable that the union even embarked on a ballot when the CWU knows that the company is losing £1m a day. A strike would be a catastrophe for us all. We simply cannot afford it.
"There are already rival companies in the market, with licences from the regulator, planning to capitalise on a strike, at the expense of Royal Mail jobs. They will be the only winners from any strike."
The package on offer was worth more than £60m and many companies in a similar position would be looking for a pay freeze, he added.
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