THOUSANDS of postal workers started a second day of strikes today, with a fresh wave of action set to be held next week in an escalation of the bitter Royal Mail dispute.
The Communication Workers Union served notice of further walk-outs starting next Thursday as thousands of delivery and collection workers mounted picket lines across the country today.
Up to 78,000 union members will join today’s walkout, including those pictured on Nortumberland Street in Huddersfield this morning, following a "solidly supported" strike yesterday by over 40,000 mail centre staff and drivers.
Details of how long next week’s strikes will last and which group of workers will be involved are expected to be announced today.
A new opinion poll showed that twice as many people sympathised with the postal workers rather than the Royal Mail management.
Half of the 840 adults questioned by BBC Two’s Newsnight sympathised with the postal workers and the union as opposed to the Royal Mail management (25%) and most didn’t want the company privatised.
The union offered "unconditional" talks at the conciliation service Acas in a bid to break the deadlocked row over jobs, pay and modernisation.
Mark Higson, Royal Mail’s managing director, said it was "appalling but sadly not surprising" that more strikes had been called.
The new stoppages will cause further disruption to mail deliveries, which are already facing big delays because of this week’s action.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged Royal Mail management and postal workers to get "round the table" to solve the dispute, saying the strike was "self-defeating".
He warned: "If more and more customers leave the Royal Mail and more and more customers stop using the Royal Mail, then more jobs will be lost, so this is self-defeating."
Union leaders stepped up their attack on Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, accusing him of telling "untruths".
The minister responded by urging both sides to continue talking until the deadlock was broken and raised the prospect that the conciliation service Acas could become involved.
"I don’t think trading insults in this situation helps resolve the dispute. Politicising or dramatising it is useless. People need to focus on what issues are dividing them."
Pickets were joined yesterday by other union activists, waving 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 and hitting out at the Royal Mail and Lord Mandelson - one accusing the Business Secretary of having a "vendetta" against postal workers.
London postal worker John Humphries, 45, said on a picket line at Nine Elms, Vauxhall: "If changes are not made, the service will change for the worse. Lord Mandelson does take some blame. His problem is that he is trying to get his own back because it has been impossible to privatise us completely. He has a vendetta."
Leeds postal worker Pauline Bell, 53, said from a picket line in the city: "People think this is just about pay, but it is much more than that. It is the harassment and intimidation. There is less people to do more work."
The CWU last night wrote to Acas setting out its offer of talks.
Deputy general secretary Dave Ward said: "We have served notice for further strike action. However, these strikes can be avoided.
"We have a week in which to reach an agreement. We are determined to get an agreement. We want Royal Mail to join us at Acas and work with us to achieve one.
"Royal Mail has been putting out misinformation about documentation over the past few days. Let’s take all that documentation to Acas where it can be fairly examined. The CWU has nothing to hide."
Mr Higson said: "Any pretence from the CWU that they care about customers or about the future of the postal service is now shown to be totally dishonest.
"The CWU leadership has failed to honour and deliver the agreement we both negotiated on Tuesday night that would have averted this week’s strikes, ensured no further strikes until the end of the year - and given both parties a period of calm for further talks and to give customers the service they deserve between now and Christmas."
The UK’s largest volunteering charity, CSV, said it hoped the dispute would be resolved soon as tens of thousands of people would be receiving information through the post about the biggest day of volunteering, being held on October 31.