Belfast Telegraph

Strike misery as Southern Rail and Post Office workers stage action

Strikes by rail and Post Office employees affected services on Monday as more workers threatened industrial action amid signs that the Government will not attempt to ban walkouts.

Post Offices and Southern Railway were hit by strikes involving thousands of workers in separate, long running rows over jobs, safety, pensions and branch closures.

Workers at cereal company Weetabix are to go on strike in the new year after voting for action in a row over shift patterns.

Members of Usdaw backed industrial action by 9-1 on a turnout of almost 70%.

Meanwhile talks were held at the conciliation service Acas to try to resolve a pay row involving cabin crew at British Airways, which threatens strikes on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The airline said it will run a full service over Christmas if the strikes by Unite members go ahead.

Striking Post Office workers set up a Santa's Grotto, complete with live reindeer, outside the Business Department.

The Communication Workers Union staged the festive protest, backed up by fake snow, before handing in more than 70,000 postcards signed by members of the public across the country in support of their campaign.

General secretary Dave Ward warned that the future of the Post Office in high streets was at stake because of the franchising of Crown Post Offices to retail firms such as WH Smith.

The union claimed a fresh wave of closures is set to be announced in the new year.

The Post Office said around 50 branches were closed by the strike.

Sacks full of postcards were handed to security staff, who piled them up in the lobby of the building.

The postcards, gathered over two weekends, call for the franchise programme to be abandoned and support the idea of a Post Bank being established through the branch network.

Mr Ward told the Press Association that he made an offer to the Post Office last week to call off the industrial action in return for talks about the future of the network, which he said was rejected.

He accused the Government of standing by while Crown offices closed, and company executives of only being interested in "managing decline".

"This is a dispute about the future of high street Post Offices. Good quality offices are being moved to the back of businesses, offering fewer services and leading to worse pay and conditions.

"That model is exactly what is wrong in this country and with the world of work today."

Kevin Gilliland, group network and sales director of the Post Office, said: "Over 99% of our branches are open for business today.

"Today's strike action closed fewer than 50 of our 11,600 branches. Over 50,000 people across our business are on hand to help customers with their preparations for Christmas. All of our branches will be open as usual on 21, 22 and 23 December.

"It's simply not true that we are unwilling to talk with CWU. We have been meeting with CWU both formally and informally since we received their notice that they were balloting for industrial action in July.

"Our senior leaders have consistently been in attendance at these meetings, including with Acas, with the goal of resolving the dispute.

"Last week we offered to meet again for intensive talks immediately after the busy Christmas period, and we confirmed that we would not make further announcements prior to these taking place. CWU have also had a standing invitation to meet with our group executive since June, to which we have had no response."

A Downing Street spokesman said the unions were showing "shared contempt" for the people whose lives they were disrupting.

But the spokesman declined to say whether Prime Minister Theresa May regarded the strikes and their timing in the run-up to Christmas as politically-motivated, saying only that it was for the unions to explain their own motivations.

He played down the prospect of new legislation to tackle strikers, pointing out that the Government has just passed a Trade Union Act, adding: "The Prime Minister's focus right now is on getting these disputes settled and on easing the burden that has been unnecessarily place on hundreds of thousands of people."

Talks will be held on Tuesday to try to avert pay strikes later in the week by Unite members employed by Swissport as baggage handlers and other ground staff at 18 airports.

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: "It's within the Government's gift to bring about a suspension of rail strikes this week and resolve this Christmas chaos.

"Instead of promoting ever more draconian responses to genuine concerns about passenger safety, the Government should acknowledge that the whole issue of the dispatch of trains from platforms is in need of review.

"We need to take the heat out of the current situation. It's vital that the parties agree to take a breath and there be a moratorium to enable some sensible, objective discussions to take place.

"We need to focus on what really matters which is the safety of the ever increasing numbers of passengers on our railways.

"As Southern commuters are well aware, services are delayed, cancelled and overcrowded every day regardless of strike action. For the sake of passengers, the Government must take this opportunity to resolve the dispute and sort out Southern's unacceptable service."

A Royal Mail spokesman said: "The CWU strike at the Post Office has had little or no impact on our operations. This is our busiest time - our colleagues have been working as normal. Last posting dates for Christmas remain unchanged."

Clive Lewis, shadow business secretary, said: "We're in the midst of a string of industrial relation disasters that have Chris Grayling's fingerprints all over them.

"The British public now understand all too painfully why he's known in government circles as 'Captain Calamity'.

"His calls for a strike ban are a smoke screen to hide his own failings.

"We call on the Government to intervene in both the Southern Rail and Post Office disputes. The Government has a major financial interest in the Southern Rail franchise and is the owner of the Crown Post Office network.

"Such a dominant shareholder should take a more pro-active role in resolving these disputes and the disruption they are causing.

"What we've seen over the past few days is more shambolic handling of industrial relations by this Conservative government. Ministers seem more interested in demonising the legal action of trade unions than helping to find a resolution to help the travelling public and post office customers at this busy time of year."

The talks between British Airways and Unite at Acas were adjourned until tomorrow.

Speaking about the rail strike, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: "I am deeply disappointed that this totally unnecessary strike action is to continue and cause thousands of passengers more disruption and misery. I have reaffirmed my offer for talks with the unions if they call-off strike action, but they have failed to come to the table.

"No jobs are being lost and no pay is being cut, but the unions are in dispute over who presses the button to close the train doors.

"Driver-only operated services have been safely used across the rail network for 30 years and the rail regulator has confirmed it is safe. The unions want to take the rail industry backwards and stop the roll out of new, modern trains, which are already in use in the UK and across Europe.

"We are investing record amounts in improving our railways to deliver the modern service passengers expect, and we need everyone in the rail industry to work together to deliver for passengers."