by Héctor Figueroa
President, 32BJ SEIU
Thursday, October 9, may turn out to be a milestone date in our campaign to organize airport workers. The vast majority of 200 Air Serv cabin cleaners walked off the job at LaGuardia’s Terminal D to protest hazardous working conditions and unfair labor practices. It is the second strike in the airports campaign and worker’s first strike over health and safety concerns.
During their strike Air Serv cabin cleaners detailed their shocking and dangerous working conditions to more than 30 members of the press who showed up throughout the day. The stories, which had also been detailed in a recent complaint to OSHA, ranged from the everyday threats that come when the gloves they are given break to workers being occasionally “baptized” in feces when the pipes to empty airplane lavatories malfunction. Air Serv cabin cleaners talked about their coworker who were hospitalized last month after being pricked through their gloves by hypodermic needles they found while cleaning seatback pockets. Others explained how they were literally treated like garbage when they are forced to ride in vans that carry both workers and leaking garbage from the planes. As the day went on more and more stories emerged.
These workers who have direct contact with bodily fluids on a daily basis voiced their concerns over the spread of Ebola and decided to attend an Ebola and Infectious Disease Awareness training held by 32BJ on Thursday as well. The training, the first training many workers from JFK and LaGuardia say they have received, included demonstrations on how to put gloves on and take them off properly, how to identify Ebola, and how to restrict the spread of disease while they are at work.
Despite the training, not enough airport workers are prepared to deal with the lack of appropriate supplies and the hazards they face on the job. Not only do they need better working conditions, equipment, and training these low wage workers need better wages and benefits, like employer sponsored health care that would help them respond to the effects of these hazards.
This fight is much bigger than just strike. The reasons for acting now were best expressed by two airport workers who addressed the 32BJ Executive Board the day before the strike.
Rafael Mercedes, a long term veteran worker at the airport. He spoke of years of frustration, and how he reached a point where he had given up hope for ever receiving a fair wage for his service. This all changed when Rafael and his fellow workers were approached by 32BJ. They learned that they could gain strength if they stood together. He took pride in participating in the Martin Luther King, Jr. march that led to an increase above minimum wage and a paid holiday for the first time. While that’s good news, he’s not stopping now. With hope for the future Rafael has the courage to fight for what’s right.
Lance Maggette, a 24 year old young man with a different perspective. As he looked at his working conditions, he felt that he needed to act now or would be stuck in poverty for the rest of his life. By standing up with his fellow workers, he finds the strength to take his future into his own hands. He left the meeting with his head held high.
The Air Serv cabin cleaner strike underscores the need for airport workers to be represented. It shows that these jobs and the people who work them are important. It shows how the current system is not working. It shows that these workers needed to be paid a fair wage for dangerous work. It shows that the workers need a union to help them stand up for what they need to do their work better and to stay safe.