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Thousands of El Al Workers and Their Families Shut Down Airport

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Thousands of EI Al employes and their families forced Ben Gurion Airport to shut down today when they swarmed through the terminal buildings, workshops and hangars and blocked the runways with aircraft and buses which could not be moved because the air had been let out of their tires. All incoming air traffic was diverted to a military airfield in the Negev.

The non-violent but determined blockage of Israel’s only international airport was the El Al workers’ response to the government’s decision to liquidate the airline unless its employes agree to far-reaching concessions in labor-management relations. Economics Minister Yaacov Meridor called it “pure sabotage.”

Histadrut Secretary General Yeruham Meshel said that while he deplored the workers’ tactics, they had been “pushed into a corner” by the contradictory statements of government spokesmen with respect to El AI’s future and their jobs.

SCENE RESEMBLES A STATE FAIR

The airport resembled a state fair today. El Al workers, accompanied by their wives and children, some of them in prams, strolled along the runways dodging careening fire engines, tractors and oil tank trucks. Children played on the escalators inside the terminal building. Emergency evacuation chutes were dropped out of aircraft doors and used by youngsters as sliding ponds while their parents sat on the aircraft wings.

But the carnival atmosphere masked the calculated sabotage of vital equipment which may keep Ben Gurion Airport immobilized for several days. Workers dismantled runway landing lights and deflated the tires of three jumbo jets and several smaller 707 aircraft which had been taxied athwart the runways.

According to some reports, fluid was bled from some aircraft hydraulic systems. Extensive maintenance work will have to be done before the planes can be returned to service.

ALL CARGO FLIGHTS GROUNDED

The police seemed to be helpless, apparently because of the large numbers of women and children. The situation today was far worse than yesterday when the workers blocked the airport approaches with barriers of burning tires. That kept the passengers of all airlines from reaching their flights. Today’s action grounded El Al cargo flights, the only branch of service that continued to operate when management suspended operations six weeks ago in the wake of a wildcat strike by flight attendants.

Without the cargo flights, farmers were unable to export their perishables to European markets. Their loss has been estimated at millions of dollars. The produce and flowers that Israel sells in Europe must be shipped within hours of harvesting.

NEGOTIATIONS SCHEDULED TO BE RESUMED

The workers said today they would occupy the airport until a minister or other senior government official showed up to answer their questions about El Al’s future.

According to the Cabinet decision, the airline would be placed in voluntary liquidation unless the workers agreed to negotiate its reorganization on management terms. A three-week deadline was set. Histadrut and six of the eight El Al workers committees have agreed but the flight attendants and pilots asked more time to consider the ultimatum.

But late this afternoon, the pilots announced their assent and the government followed with an announcement that it would resume negotiations with Histadrut this evening on the future of El Al. The workers hailed that announcement as a victory which justified their disorderly actions at the airport. A government spokesman claimed that the decision to resume talks was made before the airport disruption.

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