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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 October 2007, 18:46 GMT 19:46 UK
Behind the picket line

By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

John Clercin was among those on strike at Mount Pleasant
Workers have begun the first planned 48-hour strike

Royal Mail workers have begun industrial action in a protest over pay and fears of job cuts.

Staff at a London sorting office explained why they decided to strike.

At first sight, the group of about twenty postal workers seems innocuous.

Idly chatting outside the Mount Pleasant sorting office, in Farringdon, central London, the group appear to be taking a break.

But the sight of brightly coloured banners and placards points to the true purpose of the gathering - the birth of a picket line.

Staff, both in uniform and casual clothes, turned out after last-minute talks between Royal Mail managers and the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) failed to yield a settlement.

The disagreement revolves around a pay dispute and fears of job losses. The CWU objects to the Royal Mail's 2.5% pay offer and modernisation plans, which it says will jeopardise about 40,000 jobs.

If you're pushed into a corner, there's only one way to respond, which is fight
Mark Baulch
CWU

Meanwhile, the Royal Mail says plans to introduce flexible working hours will modernise the organisation.

It says that, without dramatic reform, the organisation will not be able to survive in a liberalised mail market.

Each CWU member has been asked to walk-out from the start of their shift.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Anyone else smell a winter of discontent coming?
Claire Herbert, London

Roger Charles, the union's branch secretary at Mount Pleasant, said he and his colleagues were striking to "protect our pay, working conditions and pensions".

He said Royal Mail's flexible working proposals would mean "you couldn't say when you would be working, for how long, or where", adding that postal workers had "no alternative" to industrial action.

His sentiments were echoed by Mark Baulch, a postal worker of nearly 25 years, who said his employer's planned pension scheme reforms would leave him around 15,000 worse off - a situation he said was "unacceptable".

"If you're pushed into a corner, there's only one way to respond, which is fight what the employers are trying to do," he said, summing up the prevailing mood of defiance.

We apologise to our customers for any inconvenience that CWU strike action causes
Royal Mail

Mr Baulch, 44, who is on the CWU's national executive committee, went on: "They call it modernising. There is nothing modern about destroying people's working lives and conditions. Exploiting people is the oldest thing in the world."

In addition to criticising the Royal Mail, he also called on the government to intervene, saying postal workers were among the worst paid public sector workers.

As the picket line gathered in size, workers described growing resentment and a sense of pessimism among staff.

John Clercin, 45, who loads and unloads post, said: "People are frustrated and don't feel there is any future in the job."

He said the plans would mean "earning potential in the job will be eroded", while he said younger members of staff were making basic mistakes because there is little investment in training.

Earlier, Royal Mail responded to criticisms levelled by the CWU by saying it has "consistently sought a resolution to this dispute" and has "been in talks with the CWU since last March".

Will Hornby
Will Hornby said he did not know industrial action was taking place

"We apologise to our customers for any inconvenience that CWU strike action causes," said a spokesman.

The strike - and a second two-day walkout by CWU members on Monday - are expected to cost industry millions of pounds.

After Monday's strike, the CWU - which has 130,000 members - says it will then stage a programme of rolling strikes each Monday until the dispute is resolved.

Royal Mail is asking the public not to post letters to stop logjams building up in the system.

But is the message about the strike, and its likely effect, getting through to members of the public?

Will Hornby, a 26-year-old IT consultant from Farringdon, said he was unaware that a strike had just begun, although he added that "they always seem to be on strike".

Mr Hornby said he felt the postal service was poor, with letters arriving late or being sent to the wrong address.

Dennis Neville
They need to make sure they get what they want
Dennis Neville

However, he said he sympathised with their cause and pointed out that the problems he had experienced with the post "may be because they are under-staffed".

Dennis Neville, a pensioner, also expressed sympathy for the workers and harked back to times when industrial action was more common.

"The strike is a bit of a pain, but it had to happen - they need to make sure they get what they want" said the 76-year-old.

But the observations made by others pointed to changing habits.

Birthday card

Belgian student Olivia Hottat said she did not use the postal service, opting to stay in touch with friends and relatives by email. She added that she did not send post when she lived in Belgium either, with the exception being when she sent formal documents.

As with Mr Hornby, she was unaware that industrial action had been planned.

However, despite the use of modern technology, many people still rely on the smooth running of the postal service.

Companies have been warned that the strikes mean there will be no deliveries until next Thursday.

Karin-Marie Grobbelaar, from West Hampstead, north London, pointed out that her firm would be among those affected as they routinely sent drawings in the post.

The architectural assistant said she would be affected both in her work and personal life as the birthday card she had just posted to her father would not reach him in time.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Customers explain how the strike will affect them



SEE ALSO
Q&A: Postal strike and you
04 Oct 07 |  Business
Post union unveils strike details
28 Sep 07 |  Business
New strike threat to Royal Mail
24 Sep 07 |  Business
Postal union unveils more strikes
20 Sep 07 |  Business
Postal union set for more strikes
11 Sep 07 |  Business

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