POSTAL workers solidly supported a national strike today as picket lines were mounted outside mail centres at the start of nationwide walkouts across the country.
The Communication Workers Union stepped up its attack on Business Secretary Lord Mandelson over his role in a bitter dispute over jobs, pay and modernisation, with one leader accusing him of telling "untruths."
Pickets waved banners and flags, with slogans including Defend Our Postal Services, and Protect Our Pensions, attracting hoots of support from passing motorists.
The atmosphere was peaceful, with pickets expressing strong support for the industrial action.
Up to 42,000 mail centre staff and network drivers launched a 24 hour strike today, while 78,000 delivery and collection workers will walk out tomorrow.
The union is set to announce further strikes after hopes of reaching a last minute deal collapsed, leading to bitter recriminations.
Deputy general secretary Dave Ward today repeated he believed a "form of words" had been agreed during marathon talks earlier this week, claiming the progress was "wiped out" by a last minute intervention from Royal Mail managing director Mark Higson.
Mr Ward told GMTV that Lord Mandelson had "misrepresented" the dispute and was "frankly telling untruths."
He claimed the minister was affected by the collapse of his plan to part-privatise the Royal Mail, adding: "He is putting personal setbacks in front of settling the dispute."
Postal workers who joined a picket line in Aston, Birmingham said they hoped the action would help resolve the long-running dispute.
Steve Reid, Birmingham district branch of the CWU, said the way workers had been treated by Royal Mail was "appalling", adding: "People are saying we are against modernisation but we are not. More than 60,000 jobs have gone from this business in the last five years in agreement with the union.
"That’s not a union against modernisation. What we want to do is get Royal Mail fit for the 21st century, but it’s got to be through agreement, not dictatorship or imposition."
Postman Mahmood Ali, Birmingham area CWU representative, has five children to support at home in Handsworth and is fearing for his job.
The 40-year-old said: "I feel passionate about a job which was known as a job for life.
"It’s been handled in such a way that Royal Mail is running a declining trend in our jobs.
"This industry desperately needs transformation.
"We believe changes and modernisation is long overdue and it should be implemented jointly with the spirit of industrial relations, whereas Royal Mail want to impose changes and so-called modernisation by diktat."
The Royal Mail condemned the decision to go ahead with the "wholly unjustified" strikes and said it was willing to keep on talking, although officials warned there would now be delays to mail deliveries.
The company said it had made a "reasoned and sensible" proposal which it said would have averted the immediate strike action and provided a period of calm in the run-up to Christmas.
Mr Higson said: "Over the last day or two we have tried to persuade the CWU that there is a sensible way forward and that proposal was sent formally in a letter today.
"But despite the fact that the CWU agreed to take that solution to their national executive today, the union has yet again failed to honour its commitment to call off strikes in return for a period of no change and has shown again that its intention is to inflict as much damage as it can on the postal service and on our customers and to oppose the modernisation which is essential if Royal Mail is to survive."
Lord Mandelson said he deeply regretted the strike decision, adding that industrial action was not in the best interests of the Royal Mail, the work force or "hard pressed" consumers and businesses.
Shadow business secretary Kenneth Clarke said the Conservatives would privatise the Royal Mail if it wins the next general election.
Mr Clarke said the company needed private capital and private management to bring it up to date and change it from being "old-fashioned".
The shadow minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Royal Mail was "broke" and its future had to involve a change of culture to stop business "draining away".
"We propose to bring in private capital, assuming it is not in too disastrous a state by next May."
Mr Clarke said the Royal Mail was becoming a "total disaster", attacking the Prime Minister for "changing his mind" over the stalled part-privatisation plans.
"The Government has done nothing about the Royal Mail and we now have what could be a truly disastrous strike."
CWU general secretary Billy Hayes told the same programme that the union was "quite happy" to hold talks at Acas, but urged Royal Mail chief executive Adam Crozier to become involved.
He also repeated his strong criticism of Lord Mandelson, describing him as the "minister without responsibility".
Mr Hayes bumped into Royal Mail’s operations director Paul Tolhurst at the BBC studios and the two men had a cup of tea together.