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Royal Mail's postal workers are voting on a national strike. But with ongoing localised walkouts, how can they be sure their ballot papers will arrive?
Off and on since the end of June, postal delivery workers have staged a series of localised strikes, leaving cheques, birthday cards and important documents delivered late or not at all. In some areas, homes and businesses have not received mail for up to 10 days at a time and there's a backlog of between nine million and 25 million items undelivered.
Now it may be postal workers themselves waiting for that crucial document to drop on to the mat. Union members are being balloted on a national strike and the ballot papers will be delivered by... the Royal Mail.
Three-week ballot is standard
Most vote within first 10 days
If this pattern changes, scrutineer will alert the union
Union can then extend deadline - if it informs members by post
But in the next week, localised industrial action will affect mail deliveries in Glasgow, Cambridge and London.
Running an online or telephone ballot is not an option - by law, voting on industrial action must be conducted through the post. The only exception is for those who work on ships, who will be at sea for the duration of the voting period, says a spokesman for Electoral Reform Services (ERS), the independent body which runs about 95% of such votes in the UK.
The legislation covering industrial action ballots is the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993, which states:
"[E]very person who is entitled to vote in the ballot must -
(a) have a voting paper sent to him by post at his home address or any other address which he has requested the trade union in writing to treat as his postal address; and
(b) be given a convenient opportunity to vote by post."
The Communication Workers Union (CWU) insists that all its 130,000 members will get their papers, and the deadline of 8 October for returns will be sufficient time.
"We are the people that work in the post," says a union spokeswoman. "We've checked out the mail streams and we are confident it's enough time to get ballots back."
Posted, but will it get through?
"Three weeks is standard for ballots of this size," says ERS spokesman Simon Hearn, adding that this should be long enough for postal workers to vote, even those in areas hit by walkouts.
But there's more than fingers crossed at work here. How will those running the ballot be able to tell if industrial action delays the delivery of the industrial action ballots?
It's not turn-out that ERS looks at, as this can vary widely, depending on the union and the issue being decided upon.
"What we look for is patterns," says Mr Hearn. "Typically we get 80% back in the first week or 10 days. If that doesn't happened, we'll take a look. And if we get any abnormal peaks or troughs in returns from areas affected by industrial action."
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And if these patterns suggest voting papers are stuck in the postal system, the scrutineers may advise that the union push back its deadline.
"We have extended ballots in the past, if things go missing in the post, but it is the union's decision. And they must inform their members," says Mr Hearn.
"Yes, by post."