LONDON (Reuters) - Thousands of postal workers at Royal Mail were due to join a 48-hour nationwide strike on Thursday, blaming bosses and the government for failing to prevent the damaging action.
Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) are taking the action in a long-running dispute over pay, jobs and modernisation plans which the company and ministers say are essential if Royal Mail is to survive.
Forty-two thousand mail centre staff and drivers begin strike action at 4 a.m. on Thursday and 78,000 delivery and collection staff will walk out on Friday, the CWU said, a move which is expected to completely disrupt mail deliveries.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Wednesday the planned strikes were counterproductive and vowed the government would do everything it could to resolve the dispute, which it says will damage small firms already hit by the recession.
The action is likely to embarrass government, with the Conservatives, well ahead in opinion polls with an election due by mid-2010, already attempting to make political mileage out of the dispute.
The government wants to sell up to 30 percent of the company to make it more competitive, but shelved those plans earlier this year due to adverse market conditions and opposition from workers and Labour politicians.
The CWU blamed Royal Mail bosses and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson for the breakdown in talks, saying they sought revenge for the staff’s opposition to privatisation.
CWU Deputy General Secretary Dave Ward said Mandelson, acting in league with the people the government had appointed to run the company, “clearly feel that it’s payback time.”
Royal Mail’s business has declined by some 10 percent annually in recent years as consumers and industry customers switch to the Internet or more specialised postal services to exchange information, services and goods.
Mandelson says that if it does not embrace change, the company faces “terminal decline,” and strikes would drive more customers away and put small firms in jeopardy just as economic conditions appeared to be improving.
Conservative leader David Cameron told parliament it was the government’s failure to go ahead with its part-privatisation plans that had galvanised union militancy.
“This trade union can sense weakness and they see weakness in this prime minister and this government,” he said.
The CWU said it would announce further strike dates next week while Royal Mail has said it would hire 30,000 temporary staff to help cope with the backlog expected to be created by the strikes and a higher Christmas workload.
Editing by Jon Hemming