BA strike talks abandoned after protestors storm building

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Last-ditch talks to try and halt a planned strike by British Airways cabin crew were on Saturday abandoned after dozens of noisy protestors stormed the building where negotiations were being held.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh was harangued by protestors, television pictures showed, and police said they had to escort him from the building in London after the security breach.

Airline staff were set to hold a five-day strike from Monday, the latest move in a long-running and bitter dispute between BA and the Unite trade union over working conditions at the struggling carrier. It was thought the talks could resume Sunday.

Dozens of protestors, many waving Socialist Workers' Party banners, got into the headquarters of employment dispute resolution service Acas as the talks were under way.

They started a noisy protest while inside the building, chanting: "Willie, Willie, Willie, out, out, out" and surrounding Walsh and union officials, television pictures showed.

Walsh has faced accusations that he is trying to break the unions at BA in the dispute and Unite accuses BA of imposing changes on cabin crew and refusing to negotiate openly and fairly.

He, though, insists that the airline is struggling for its very existence.

If Monday's strike does go ahead, it would come hot on the heels of BA posting a record annual pre-tax loss of 531 million pounds (609 million euros, 765 million dollars) Friday on slumping sales.

The airline, which is slashing costs and merging with Spanish rival Iberia in a bid to return to profitability, has been hit hard by the global economic downturn which has decreased demand for air travel.

It also faced a tough start to the current financial year due to the closure of airspace across Europe for up to a week last month after Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano began spewing a cloud of ash on April 14. The shutdown was the biggest in Europe since World War II.

While BA and Unite have reached broad agreement on pay, the sticking point is now the heavily discounted flights available to off-duty cabin crew -- key perks which have been taken away from workers who have gone on strike.

BA had won an injunction blocking a first five-day strike -- due to have started on Tuesday this week -- by arguing that the union had failed to report the results of the ballot properly to its members.

But the union later won an appeal against the injunction.

If the strike does go ahead next week, BA says it is confident that thousands of cabin crew will ignore it and that it will be able to fly more than 70 percent of its passengers.

© 2010 AFP

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