Page last updated at 12:17 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 13:17 UK

Sorrow and anger on picket line

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

Picket line

They are angry, and they insist their strike is necessary. But all say they wish they were at work.

As the hours ticked by to the deadline, postal workers at Royal Mail's Princess Royal distribution centre in Stonebridge Park, north west London, waited to hear if a last-minute deal could be struck between management and union negotiators.

But the call never came.

Instead, centre staff and drivers stopped working as planned. With the sound of the busy North Circular Road rumbling behind them, the picket line settled in for a day of organising delivery runs for coffee from the local workers' cafe and offering ironic waves to managers driving HGV lorries past them.

If any depot offers an insight into the mood of Royal Mail workers, it is here.

Postal workers, especially in London, have been holding intermittent one-day strikes for months in a row over the way Royal Mail is to be modernised
Earlier this month, postal workers voted three to one in favour of nationwide industrial action (though Royal Mail said 60% of the total number of postal workers in the UK did not vote to strike)
The CWU set dates for the first nationwide postal strikes in two years
Last-gasp talks failed to reach an agreement and indeed the split between the union and Royal Mail management became more acrimonious

This was the 16th day so far in 2009 that staff here had taken strike action.

According to the local Communication Workers' Union (CWU) branch, only one employee at the site crossed the picket line.

But like the rest of his colleagues manning the picket, driver Andy Wiffen, insisted that he would rather be doing his job.

The 35-year-old from Hayes, west London, had two small children aged six and three, and was expecting a third within a month. He estimated that 2009's stoppages at this depot would have cost a typical driver some £2,500 in lost wages.

"I've got rent to pay and mouths to feed - and I'm a Royal Mail customer too," he said. "I'm not here because I like being on strike.

"I'm here because the way the management are acting, Royal Mail isn't going to be able to survive.

"If the service is going to change, managers have to work with their staff rather than trying to impose a settlement. I know we have to modernise, but let's sit down together."

'Arduous job'

Paul O'Donnell, 52, insisted that he does not want to disrupt the public's pre-Christmas postal service either.

But as secretary of the local CWU branch, he was adamant that the service's top brass were determined to provoke unrest.

Rodney Hughes
These people are tearing up long-standing working practices
Rodney Hughes

As evidence, he highlighted a Powerpoint presentation seen by the BBC's Newsnight which apparently detailed Royal Mail management's view that strikes were an "enabler" of their aims.

"I'm genuinely sorry that it has come to this," he said.

"But when our terms and conditions and our pay are under attack we have to do what we can to protect them.

"This is an arduous job - it's physically demanding. You can't bring about change by imposition in an industry like this, but that's what Royal Mail seem determined to do."

'It's crazy'

Rodney Hughes, a 42-year-old HGV driver on the night shift from Walthamstow, east London, agreed that the management has only got worse during his 25 years at Royal Mail.

"It used to be that the managers had done their time as drivers or as posties or in the sorting office," he says.

I won't have any junk mail
Marion Monahan, Bristol

"But now you get people like [Royal Mail chief executive] Adam Crozier, who comes in from outside and tries to dictate how we operate.

"I wouldn't tell you how to do your job. But these people are tearing up long-standing working practices without any understanding of what we do.

"It's crazy - when the shift patterns changed they ended up paying us more overtime, which costs the company more. But they say it's the union who are damaging the service."

Fellow driver Pat Patel, 48, nodded in agreement.

"This is not about wage rises - we've had a pay freeze and lost our Christmas bonuses.

"But these are the only tactics people like Crozier understand.

"People say we've got it easy, that we should keep quiet. But how many other people get out of their beds at 3am to get to work?"

Pat thrust his hands in his pockets and shook his head. Like his fellow strikers, he said he was hoping for a resolution. But the strong emotions on this picket line seem unlikely to dissipate any time soon.

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