Anyone looking to capture an image of income inequality at a glance need look only to a major metropolitan airport like Logan International Airport. On the one hand, you have scores of passengers with six-figure incomes: bankers, lawyers, accountants, and executives on the move in search of profit. One other hand, you have the men and women who tend to the terminals and the baggage who often can’t make ends meet for either themselves or their families.
Studies of service jobs in the airline industry offer stark economic portraits of this gaping rift between the haves and have-nots. The latest study, released earlier this week, summarizes the general effect with its title: “Record profit for airlines; airport workers under pressure.” Previous examinations have painted versions of that portrait from various geographic vantage points, such as a 2013 examination of San Francisco’s airport by the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research, or a 2014 overview of wage theft at New York-area airports by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research. But the new report, released by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, offers a global overview—like a Google Earth image of the economic divide.
The London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation is a global organization of 700 trade unions in 147 countries, a vantage which gives their report a sweeping view of an industry where profits have quadrupled over the last five years, while wages for service workers have steadily declined. In the U.S. alone, pay for service workers fell in real terms by 14 percent between 1991 and 2011 while workloads and turnovers have both increased. (The total number of U.S. airline workers fell by nearly 20 percent between 2001 and 2011, even as the number of passengers soared).
Sometimes referred to in the industry as “ground handling,” these poorly paid jobs comprise all the services required by aircrafts and passengers between landing and take-off, from security to cabin cleaning, from baggage handling to fueling. At one time, these services were provided by solid jobs through the airlines themselves. But in the aftermath of airline deregulation, those jobs have been steadily outsourced to contractors that race to the bottom, seeking to win bids by minimizing pay, benefits, hours, personnel and training.
If the play of deregulated capital seems inevitable, the very existence of the report also signals a countervailing force that we, in the labor movement, feel has become equally unstoppable—a gathering popular reaction against economic disparity. This revolt has fueled the most unpredictable election in anyone’s memory, galvanized victories from New York to California in the fast-food “Fight for $15” movement, and brought together the coalition that created the “Record profits for airlines” study.
Released June 1 to mark the World Air Transport Summit, a two-day gathering of airline executives in Dublin, the report was supported by a global day of action from a new coalition called Airport Workers United, with activities from Ireland to Australia, including in the U.S., where workers gathered in Newark, Philadelphia, New York and right here in Boston.
This day of action kept the momentum going in the fight at Logan Airport, where employees for low-wage contractors have gone on strike four times in the past twelve months, and participated in civil disobedience on Martin Luther King Day.
This action in the streets has in turn spurred the Massachusetts Senate to move a bill out of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development to raise airport wages to $15 an hour. In itself, that raise wouldn’t solve the part-time limbo in which many workers are stuck, but enforcing higher pay could squeeze out the worst actors in the industry, and move the airport toward general reforms. Our union, 32BJ SEIU, has aided in all these efforts, and also raised questions around plans for an airport expansion, with its designs for elite and segregated facilities created for privileged international travelers, to be funded by the sale of several hundred million in bonds. The collateral for that bond issue is still unclear, but more to the point, expanding airport facilities without raising workplace standards means expanding bad jobs, with a potential expansion of the public assistance that many workers need just to survive.
In the end, the airport battle, like the fight for $15 and much of the unruly election season, isn’t primarily about Massport or 32BJ or even our elected legislature. It’s about the individuals who for too long have been seen as invisible victims, huddled at the wrong end of the gaping economic rift. The new report does a good job of amplifying their voices, with worker stories from across the globe opening each section. Here in Boston, workers’ voices have begun to ring out, too. Airport worker Kheila Cox had her story broadcast nationally on Jorge Ramos’ English language news show in March. Less dramatically but equally important, airport workers have come forward to speak at rallies, to meet with their senators, to step before airport boards casually talking about hundred-million-dollar bond issues.
On Wednesday, in Boston, we heard from Juan Albuerme, who went to his state senator’s office and spoke about the difficulty of providing for his two children, ages 9 and 11, when he only brings home $300 a week after 40 hours of work. Last week, at a Massport board meeting, we heard from Jonathan Cornier, who spoke about helping out his mother, who lives on disability, and his struggles to pay for community college while working at Logan. Ultimately, as these workers stand up in Boston and around the globe, the big picture can be changed. The workers are ready for their close-ups.