NEW YORK—New York area airports workers rekindled the spirit of historical civil rights marches today with a 10-mile trek from Kennedy airport up to a LaGuardia Airport bridge where on Jan. 20, 2014, Martin Luther King Day, 32 protesters were arrested for civil disobedience.
The workers began a countdown to April 28, the expiration date for a 90-day deadline set by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for major carriers and their contractors to come up with a plan to move the workers from poverty wages and no benefits to family-sustaining wages and better benefits.
Michael Carey, a Kennedy Airport security officer, said workers at the airports have seen significant progress already, including a policy move underway by the Port Authority to reform workers wages and benefits and a pay increase for employees of some contractors.
“We are in a struggle for our very livelihood,” he said. “Any plan, whether it’s from the Port Authority or the airlines and their contractors, must offer us a collective bargaining process so we can negotiate for things like affordable health care and family-sustaining wages and, in the coming years, in response to what is happening in the economy, we can improve our situation incrementally through a contract that we bargain with our employers.”
Today’s march to honor Dr. King’s dream on the 46th anniversary of his death also drew an array of city elected and community leaders and supporters of airport workers. They included U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes; New York City Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James; New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer; Council members Andrew Cohen, Jimmy van Bramer, Mark Levine, Inez Dickens, Carlos Menchaca, Richard Torres, Julissa Ferreras, Costa Constantinides, Daniel Dromm, Elizabeth Crowley, Donovan Richards, Alan Maisel, Roy Lancman, Rafael Espinal, Mathieu Eugene and New York State Assembly members Michelle Titus, and Walter Thompson Mosley; New York State Senators Adriano Espaillat, Malcolm Smith and Jose Peralta; Pastor Que English of the Bronx Christian Fellowship; Bishop Orlando Findlayter of Churches United to Save and Heal, or CUSH; The Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, pastor emeritus of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn; Rev. Willie D. Francois III, Associate Minister, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church of the New Hope Christian Fellowship Church; Rabbi Michael E. Feinberg, Executive Director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition; Rev. Joel Gibson, Director of Member and Faith Based Services.
“You cannot ask these hard-working men and women at our airports to do important work, then turn around and pay them poverty wages,” Rangel said. “Our city and our region deserve better and shame on the airlines that are still standing on the sidelines of this effort to improve the lives and communities of these workers.”
The march began in front of the JFK AirTrain Lefferts Blvd Station, continued to Queens Blvd, where workers and a few marchers sent a delegation up to the offices of airport contractor Aviation Safeguard. Marchers then continued to the 94th Street Bridge at Ditmars Blvd.
32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa, who marched the entire 10-mile route, said workers need a real plan but have not yet heard from the airlines and their contractors.
“What the workers want is an actual three to five-year plan that is broad and for the long term, that includes family-sustaining wages and benefits, job protection and collectively bargained contracts,” Figueroa said.
A low-bid, race-to-the-bottom contracting system has seen passenger services subcontracted out to private firms like Airway Cleaners/Alstate Maintenance, PrimeFlight, AirServ and Aviation Safeguard, which hire workers for minimum wage and little to no benefits. Some 12,000 subcontracted airport service workers at Newark, JFK and LaGuardia who provide crucial services such as cabin cleaning, terminal security, baggage handling, wheelchair assistance and sky cap services struggle on or barely above minimum wage or even less for tipped workers and lack basic benefits like affordable health insurance, paid holidays or paid sick time. Many of the workers often need public assistance to make ends meet.
They work alongside Port Authority-hired workers who earn more money and have benefits. The carriers, meanwhile, are making record profits and paying ample wage and benefit compensations to their corporate staffs.
The workers at the three airports have been organizing for more than two years, petitioning employers, airlines and terminal operators, holding rallies and demanding improved working standards that allow them to live with dignity.
On Jan. 20, 2014, MLK Day, nearly 1,000 workers, elected officials, clergy, Figueroa and other 32BJ officials protested on a bridge leading to LaGuardia. In an act of civil disobedience, more than 30 people were arrested, including Rep. Charles Rangel, Figueroa, several City Council and state assembly members, workers and clergy members. Following the Jan. 20 protest, workers began seeing results. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey called on the four major carriers—American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue and United Airlines—and their contractors to:
- give contracted passenger service workers at John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport who make $9 or less an immediate $1-an-hour raise with a phase-in to $10.10;
- recognize Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday, retroactive to this year’s holiday;
- and work toward “providing an improved wage and benefits package to the thousands of hard-working men and women” at the airports, developing a plan within 90 days.
Delta was the first to sign on to the plan and its contracted workers began receiving the dollar raise on March 1 at Kennedy Airport. American soon followed but its workers have yet to receive the dollar raise. JetBlue has balked and United, the region’s dominant carrier, with 70% of the passenger traffic at Newark Airport, has remained silent on the proposals.
Meanwhile, as instructed by a committee of the Port Authority Board last month, the bi-state agency staff is working to develop, research and outline steps necessary to create a policy mandating wage increases and benefits for workers across the entire geography of Port Authority facilities, starting with the airports. The Port Authority Board of Commissioners will consider and debate that policy at its next meeting on April 23.
“Fair wages for airport workers and strong profits for their employers are perfectly compatible, as we have seen in San Francisco,” said State Senator Jose Peralta. “We can’t stand by while low wages and no benefits lead to an astronomical turnover rate that puts lives at risk. Let’s come to a fair deal, and keep our airports running at full capacity.”
“On this day 46 years ago, Dr. King lost his life while in Memphis standing with sanitation workers who were fighting for their rights. Today we are marching in New York with 32BJ airport workers who are fighting for these same protections,” said Vincent Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Coincil, AFL-CIO. “It is unconscionable that the companies employing these airport workers think it’s ok to pay poverty wages, all while refusing to provide the safety equipment necessary to protect employees and passengers alike. The Central Labor Council is determined to stand with these workers in their fight, as they protest for the wages, benefits, and protections all workers deserve.”
With more than 145,000 members, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service union in the country.