NEW JERSEY (March 19, 2014)—The Port Authority Operations Committee voted unanimously to direct Patrick Foye, Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to develop, research and outline the necessary steps to develop a policy that mandates wage increases and benefits for workers at all Port Authority facilities, across the entire geography of the agency, including Newark Liberty International Airport.
Newark Airport baggage handler Demetrius DeBiase said he’s hopeful that, with the board’s action, United would soon join the process and require his employer, Huntleigh Corp., to begin implementing raises for workers at Newark.
“I just want to be able to support myself and my family. That’s all anyone wants,” DeBiase says. “I work hard, and deserve basic dignity and respect.”
“The important thing, what we’re fighting for at all three airports,” he added, “is to have a voice in the workplace. Otherwise, there’s nothing to say we won’t be back in the same spot we’re in six months or a year from now.”
32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa welcomed the board’s move and called it a heartening step forward in a process initiated by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Executive Director Foye.
“We’re glad to see the Port Authority moving in a positive direction and building on the proposal beginning to be implemented at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. This move has the potential to lift standards and improve the lives of thousands of contracted airport workers across the metropolitan region,” Figueroa said. “The Port recognizes the importance of working in concert on both sides of the river; this is good practice for workers, for the agency, and for the millions of New York and New Jersey residents who pass through Port-overseen sites across the two states.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey initially demanded in a Jan. 28, 2014 letter to the chief executive officers of the four major carriers that they and their contractors:
- 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 paid holiday, retroactive to this year’s holiday;
- 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.
Although Patrick Foye, the agency’s executive director, sent the letter, because of a peculiarity of the agency—run jointly by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey—he named Kennedy and LaGuardia airports and excluded Newark Liberty International Airport.
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.
And 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.
Foye’s letter came a week later. In it, Foye told JetBlue Airways Corporation Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger and his counterparts at Delta, American and United, Richard Anderson, Doug Parker and Jeff Smisek that the Port Authority was “prepared to use every tool at its disposal to achieve” the goals of improving wages and benefits. Anderson was the first to sign on and Delta’s contracted workers began receiving the dollar raise on March 1. American soon followed. JetBlue balked and United, which is the dominant carrier in the region, with 70% of the passenger traffic at Newark Airport remains silent on the proposals.
With more than 145,000 members, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service union in the country.