U.K. Postal Workers On Strike

Tens of thousands of British postal workers seeking better pay and employment protection walked off the job Thursday in a 48-hour strike. It's the biggest labor dispute seen in Britain for years, and threatens to severely disrupt mail service across the country.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Sending any holiday cards to Britain this year? Well, do it early. It looks like a rocky season for Britain's mail service. Work ground to a halt starting yesterday. About 100,000 postal employees kicked off a 48-hour national strike. It's one of the biggest labor disputes in the U.K. in decades, as NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: Large-scale national strikes in Britain were supposed to be a thing of the past. But then, wham, here comes a huge, national mail strike like something out of the 1970s.

At root, the dispute is about the pace of modernization of the Royal Mail. Union leaders say they're not against modernization, but think it can be done without massive job losses. Paul Moffitt(ph) of the Communication Workers' Union.

Mr. PAUL MOFFITT (Communication Workers' Union): We're prepared to meet with Royal Mail any time, any place that they choose, we will meet them. What's holding up negotiations is they're reluctant to negotiate with us, their reluctance to discuss modernization, their reluctance to step back from any of their implementations and revisions.

So what I would say to Royal Mail is, if you're serious about this now, come back around the table with us, and we can move forward on these negotiations and avoid any further strike action.

GIFFORD: Royal Mail controls more than 90 percent of the British mail market, and for 350 years enjoyed a monopoly on mail collection and delivery. It's struggled to make money since it lost the monopoly in 2003 and has had to deal with falling mail volumes as commercial customers switched to courier companies, and people just used more email. That's why modernization is needed, says management. Paul Tolhurst is the Royal Mail's operations director.

Mr. PAUL TOLHURST (Operations Director, Royal Mail): The trades union continues to say that they are putting the interests of customers first. I can't see how strike action puts the interest of customers first. All they need to do is to give us an assurance that there will be no further strikes before Christmas. And what we will do is continue to add to the meetings we've had, over 80 already, but we'll keep talking to them, and we will thrash out a resolution.

GIFFORD: Meanwhile, the ordinary man or woman who just wants to mail a letter gets stuck in the middle. Special warehouses for all the undelivered mail have been set up, and officials admit that letters delayed by the regional strikes of recent weeks were put in the warehouses first and will therefore be delivered last because they're literally at the bottom of the pile, suggesting that perhaps people should mail their letters later if they want them to get there sooner. Either way, it's all another big blow to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who must face a general election before June next year.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): I think instead of striking, the workers and the management should be sitting around the table, getting an end to the strike. You've got to look at the future of the Royal Mail here. If more and more commercial customers leave the Royal Mail, and more and more customers stop using the Royal Mail, then more jobs will be lost.

GIFFORD: The British public has so far watched with its usual resignation as another once-proud British institution finds itself struggling in the 21st century. The days when you could post a letter in London and expect it to arrive almost anywhere in the British Isles the following morning are certainly gone for now. And with three more days of strike action planned for next week, everyone's hoping the dispute can be settled before Christmas.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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