Blair calls for reason, Lang issues threats ... but post workers say 'we'll take out whole weekends'

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The Labour leadership yesterday called for an end to the Royal Mail dispute as hardliners defied mainstream opinion by urging a serious escalation of the industrial action.

As delivery and sorting staff staged their seventh 24-hour strike yesterday, influential members of the postal executive of the Communication Workers' Union were arguing for more disruptive tactics.

However late last night, talks at the conciliation service Acas were timetabled for today.

Meanwhile, the RMT transport union set two more dates - 11 and 23 September - for day-long strikes at seven rail operators already hit by 24-hour stoppages. One option in the postal dispute to be discussed by the union leadership on Tuesday, following a further nationwide stoppage on Monday, would be to "take out whole weekends" with action possibly lasting from Friday to Monday inclusive. Such a decision would lead to the further suspension of the Royal Mail's letters monopoly, the Government warned.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, made clear his support for Alan Johnson, the beleaguered joint general secretary of the union, who believes there is already a basis for a settlement and that the proposals should be put to the membership.

"I am sure the leadership position of the union is absolutely correct in saying there is a basis for a settlement," he said. Mr Johnson has been consistently over-ruled by his executive, which is bitterly opposed to the management's productivity proposals, especially "team-working". A union official said that the intervention by Labour politicians was "unhelpful".

Mr Johnson insisted that a peace formula would only be put to members "when we have got something to ballot on".

Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, yesterday repeated his warning that any more action would lead to further suspension of the Royal Mail's letters monopoly.

He said when the present suspension of the Royal Mail's monopoly expires on Thursday any subsequent stoppage would trigger a further three-month period during which private operators could handle letters carrying less than pounds 1 postage.

The management has offered to set up a joint working party to investigate flexible working, chaired by Acas. The management would be willing to abandon its insistence on team-working if the union drops its principled objection to it.

Left-wingers, however, said yesterday that they did not trust the Royal Mail to adopt an open mind, and wanted management to scrap its "New Way of Working" document which contained the insistence on team-working.

Richard Dykes, managing director of the Royal Mail, said a three-month suspension of the monopoly would threaten the business: "How could the union executive justify putting its members' jobs on the line when it has not even given them a chance to air their views in a ballot?"