New York, NY— In 2012, a small group of New Jersey airport workers began to organize for higher wages and union representation with 32BJ SEIU. Their movement quickly grew and soon baggage handlers, airport security officers, wheelchair attendants, skycaps, cabin cleaners and terminal cleaners at JFK, LaGuardia and around the country took up their call for $15 and a union at our nation’s airports.
Today, after four years of organizing and 7 months of negotiations, 8,000 New Jersey and New York contracted airport workers settled their first union contract. The tentative agreement provides important workplace rights and protections including seniority rules, scheduling protocols, disciplinary procedures and health and safety guidelines under 11 airline subcontractors who have given their employees union recognition. Covering more than half of the subcontracted airport workers at JFK, LGA and EWR airports, the contract sets a new industry standard for both New York and New Jersey workers and provides a framework for unionizing subcontracted airport workers nationwide.
“This is a historic moment for airport workers not only in New York and New Jersey, but for workers around the country,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU. “It has been a long time since such a large group of workers have been able to successfully organize for union membership; this contract shows that despite a changing political landscape and ongoing struggle, workers will always find ways to come together to better their jobs and their lives.”
The new contract is expected to be ratified by airport workers over the next week. For New York airport workers, who will receive their first raise towards the state’s $15 minimum wage in January, the contract settlement means they are one of the first groups of workers in the whole country to win both $15 and a union.
“When we started this campaign I was making $7.25 an hour, I was struggling to provide for my daughters and I faced intimidation and disrespect when I came into work,” Said Shareeka Elliott, a terminal cleaner at JFK Airport who was outspoken throughout the campaign, even traveling to Washington D.C. multiple times to lobby for airport workers’ cause. “We have come so far. Our new contract protects me at work and our organizing for higher wages means I can take care of my children the way I should be able to.”
“It is my honor to stand with New York airport workers who have fought for so long to strengthen their communities with good jobs,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Our economy grows when workers succeed and our airports are safer when airport workers have the work resources and support they need to provide the best service possible. I am proud that New Yorkers can set such a strong example to the rest of the country.”
While New York airport workers celebrate, New Jersey airport workers are preparing for a two tiered system at the region’s airports, where they remain at just $10.10 an hour while doing the same work as their New York counterparts.
In October the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey voted to allow a two-tiered payment system in which New York airport workers are on a path to $15/hour while New Jersey airport workers remain at a $10.10 minimum wage for the same work.
“Newark Airport workers shouldn’t be treated as second class citizens,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “I am proud to have stood with Newark Airport workers in their fight for union representation over the last four years. And I will continue to support these hardworking men and women to ensure they get what they deserve—at least a $15 minimum wage and benefits to go along with their new union rights.”
“Equal pay for equal work – it’s one of the fundamental principles of our society that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has sadly refused to respect,” said New Jersey Gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy. “This double standard unfairly penalizes workers for simply living on this side of the Hudson River. The fight for justice isn’t over until there’s parity across state lines so that Newark Airport workers earn the same amount as workers at LaGuardia and JFK airports and I will stand with these hardworking men and women who keep Newark Airport safe and clean until we right this wrong.”
Wages and benefit increases are typically included in any union contract, but New York and New Jersey airport workers have effectively countered the unique challenges of their subcontractor dominated industry using both political channels rather and contract negotiations. Were individual, unionized subcontractors to agree to economic increases, they could lose a necessary competitive advantage and simply be replaced by the airlines, leaving workers back where they started. Airport workers have instead fought for industry-wide increases from the agencies and elected officials in order to holistically address the broken, low-road system that has been established over decades of deregulation
“This contract is just one part of a larger strategy to raise wages and win union representation. Using innovative and creative new approaches to organizing, airport workers have won substantial wage increases in New York and New Jersey and across the country.” said Shirley Aldebol, vice president of 32BJ and a lead negotiator for the airport workers’ contract.
For the 8,000 New York and New Jersey airport workers covered in these negotiations, the contract fulfills the Union part of their call for “$15 and a Union.” For airport workers in New Jersey however, the political battle continues for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to provide equal pay for equal work. Airport workers on both sides of the river are also calling on the Port Authority to follow through on a two year overdue promise to provide benefits like health insurance and adequate training that would better support workers, their families and the public.
Around the country airport workers continue to fight for $15 and a union in the wake of an undeniable poverty crisis at our airports. The airports are microcosms of our changing country, with the majority of workers being people of color, and nearly half being immigrants. By sticking together, speaking out for change, going on strike, and rallying for their rights, airport workers have won wage increases in Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, and Fort Lauderdale. Today, more than 85,000 airport workers nationwide have either received wages increases or other improvements, including health care, paid sick leave and worker retention policies. As they celebrate the new contract in New York they will continue to make airport jobs around the country good jobs again.
With 155,000 members in eleven states and Washington, D.C., including 70,000 in New York City, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.