NEW YORK—To herald their demands for better pay and benefits, dignity, respect and a voice in the workplace, leading delegates of contracted New York area airports passenger service workers declared today that they and thousands of their co-workers have chosen 32BJ SEIU as their union.
The workers say they are now ready to fight for a binding contract and the remaining elements of the directive that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey issued in January calling on airlines and their contractors to improve wages and benefits. The Port Authority Board of Commissioners last month adopted the directive as the bi-state agency’s policy, granting broad authority to the agency’s executive director to set wages and benefits standards.
At a sometimes raucous, sometimes somber proceeding inside a hall in the Riverside Church on the Upper West Side, community groups counted commitment cards signed by thousands of airport workers stating their intention as 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa, the Rev. James Forbes, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins observed.
“Look how far we’ve come in such a short time,” Michael Carey, a Kennedy Airport security officer who was master of ceremony, said to the more than 200 worker delegates attending the event. “I know it’s not going to be easy but I am confident we will get a union, that we will get a contract that pays us fair wages and benefits and that we will get respect and dignity in our workplaces.”
Out of a total of about 12,000 contracted passenger service workers at the three airports, about 2,300 belong to other unions. Of the remainder, 32BJ has been helping workers at 13 leading contractors, about 6,100 workers, organize themselves into a union. Out of that total, 4,051 have signed cards to join or are already members of 32BJ SEIU. Another 1,000, largely security officers, belong to 32BJ working for Port Authority contractors.
“Your cause is just and everybody knows that,” Mayor Dinkins said. “I am confident that you are going to win and I will proud to say that I was with you.”
Other witnesses to the event include Pastor Que English of the Bronx Christian Fellowship and Bishop Orlando Findlayter of Churches United to Save & Heal (CUSH). Ferrer, another witness to the event, told the delegates that the “fight for justice for low wage workers is the fight of our time. I’m here to be a witness to the expression of your wishes.”
Workers say they want simple fairness—wage and benefits on par with employees of contractors hired by the Port Authority and they cannot wait any longer for employers and the carriers that hire them to recognize their bedrock demands for a union and a collective bargaining process.
“If we have a voice in the workplace, respect and dignity on the job and a union of our choice, then we could sit down with our employers and bargain a fair contract that puts us on a path to a better future,” Leonie Martinez, A Kennedy Airport wheelchair agent, said. “This solution not only benefits me and my co-workers and the airports, it is an economic stimulus for our communities.”
At the same time that groups of other underpaid workers are doing the painstaking work of organizing, thousands of airport workers are on the cusp on having their lives fundamentally changed once the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey fulfills its promise to improve standards at the airports.
Figueroa noted the difficult road contracted airport workers have traveled to get to this point and the significant progress they have made.
“It certainly hasn’t been easy,” he said. “a little over two years ago, a group of airport workers decided to take a stand for justice, dignity, for respect and for fair wages and benefits. Airport workers are now ready to say to the world that a majority of them of them want to be a part of 32BJ SEIU.”
The system that workers have to get their voices heard is a very disadvantageous one, he added, making efforts for the workers to organize themselves into union Herculean while allowing airlines to get the benefits of contractors competing to win contracts at the lowest possible costs.
“We stand with you 100% in the demand for a just wage, living wage and we won’t stop until it is done,” Rev. Forbes told the worker delegates. “We will not rest until people understand that we will not be a great nation until everyone is given the wages we deserve and the conditions that will sustain us. Only then will we be the great America we talk about.”
At New York area airports, contracted passenger service workers providing crucial services such as cabin cleaning, terminal security, baggage handling, wheelchair assistance, and sky cap services, currently struggle on low wages and lack basic benefits like affordable health insurance or paid sick time. In one of the most expensive cities in the nation, workers struggle to get by on poverty wages, often relying on food stamps or eating at food pantries, getting health care from Medicaid or emergency rooms, and receiving Section 8 housing assistance and other public subsidies to make ends meet despite working full time at the airports.
Jobs that were once direct airline positions with decent compensation have become low-wage, no-benefit positions. For more than a year, these workers have petitioned employers, airlines and terminal operators; held rallies and taken to the streets to demand improved working standards that allow them to live with dignity, but working conditions have not improved.
Carey, a security officer for contractor Aviation Safeguard at Kennedy Airport, pointed out that, although he does the same job as security officers who work for Allied Barton, which is contracted to the Port Authority at the airports and other locations, he earns less than half their pay without any of the benefits like health care, vacation and pension that they get.
“It’s just simple fairness,” Carey said. “What we want is equality.”
With more than 145,000 members, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service union in the country.