On Dec. 19, hundreds of contract workers at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports rallied outside the New York headquarters of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and presented a petition to the PA signed by more than 2,000 workers. It had a list of demands and a deadline by which the workers want the PA to address their complaints about being paid poverty wages without affordable health care benefits, paid sick days and holidays, and union representation.
What the 15,000 workers, mostly Black and Latino/a, want is to commemorate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, celebrated this year on Jan. 20, as a paid federal holiday. “Many of us are children of pioneers who fought for Civil Rights, who changed America,” said security guard Prince Jackson at the rally. “They fought for a better life for us, not poverty wages with little or no benefits. …
“Dr. King died supporting Memphis sanitation workers who were working under deplorable conditions and making what today would be $11.41 per hour. Forty-six years after Dr. King’s death, I earn $8 an hour. Most airport workers earn just $8 per hour. We also work under deplorable conditions. We are here to say: Our issues must be addressed, starting with Martin Luther King Day 2014.” (SEIU 32BJ press release, Dec. 20)
For over a year, the workers who do such jobs as cleaning airports and handling baggage have been struggling with private contractors — like Airway Cleaners/Alstate Maintenance, PrimeFlight, AirServ and Aviation Safeguard hired by the PA — for higher wages with benefits and union representation. But the contractors have ignored them. Now, the workers are addressing the PA, which was set up by the states of New York and New Jersey to oversee area transportation and which has used outsourcing to lower its costs.
But the race to the bottom for workers in the country’s airport industry has got to stop. A study published last November by the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley reported that there was a serious decline nationally in airport workers’ wages between 2002 and 2012. For instance, outsourcing of baggage porter jobs increased from 25 percent to 84 percent, with one out of three workers (37 percent) living in poverty and forced to subsist on government benefits. Jobs that used to pay $19 an hour now pay $10.60, a 45 percent decrease.
The report, entitled “Course Correction: Reversing Wage Erosion to Restore Good Jobs at American Airports,” noted that wages at U.S. airports grew more slowly than wages in the food services and retail industries. But airport workers are joining the growing movement of underpaid workers for both a living wage and a union voice on the job.
To support New York area airport workers’ demands for a paid MLK holiday, sign the petition at preview.tinyurl.com/kj6zsfa.
The New York City chapters of the People’s Power Assembly and OccuEvolve are supporting the Jan. 20 demonstration of airport workers at LaGuardia Airport. Go to peoplespowerassemblies.org for more information.