Union ready to restart BA talks after disruption

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The Independent Online

The union representing British Airways cabin crew said it stands ready to continue talks "at any time" in a bid to settle the dispute which could see staff walk out tomorrow.

Negotiations aimed at preventing the planned series of strikes ended in disarray yesterday when scores of demonstrators stormed the building in central London where the meeting was being held.

Police were called to the headquarters of the conciliation service Acas after members of the Socialist Workers Party managed to get to the 23rd floor where leaders of the Unite union were meeting with BA chief executive Willie Walsh.

The talks had to be abandoned amid scenes of chaos as the union officials and Mr Walsh were surrounded by the chanting demonstrators.

Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite, angrily remonstrated with the protesters telling them to "shut up".

But the protesters, many holding up Socialist Workers Party banners, stayed in the building until they were ejected by police officers.

Events took a further turn last night when BA accused Derek Simpson, joint leader of Unite, of sending Tweets throughout the afternoon, giving a "running commentary" of the negotiations.

A string of Tweets appeared under the name derekamicus, on a page with a photograph of Mr Simpson.

One read: "Willie and Tony locking horns over accusations of unequal treatment of allegations of bullying," followed by another reading: "Arguments over the 8 sacked workers," and then: "Fear of more sackings to come."

The airline said in a statement: "We are astonished that Derek Simpson feels it appropriate to Tweet to the world a running commentary of some very delicate negotiations on a Saturday afternoon aimed at averting strikes which will impact on thousands of hard working families wanting to go on half-term holidays and the job security of his members."

But speaking last night, a Unite spokesman said: "The antics of the SWP and references to Tweeting are peripheral to the real concerns to passengers.

"They want to know that we are serious about resolving this dispute, which Unite is absolutely committed to.

"We stand ready to resume talks with BA at any time.

"We urge that the distractions of today are set aside and that no time is wasted in getting back to the vital business of making progress and settling this dispute."

Peter Harwood, the chief conciliator at Acas who was chairing the talks, said protesters surrounded Mr Walsh as he tried to call his colleagues on his mobile phone.

Mr Harwood called the police and then managed to help move Mr Walsh to another floor, away from the demonstrators.

The BA chief executive was then taken out of the building via a rear exit where a car was waiting to take him away.

Mr Harwood said there was no violence involved in the demonstration, although he admitted it was "intimidating".

He said he would be contacting both sides again to try to resurrect the talks, adding he hoped the surprise interruption was merely an "adjournment".

The talks lasted more than five hours but Mr Harwood said he was not prepared to say if any progress had been made.

Acas chief executive John Taylor said security arrangements would be reviewed.

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