Newark, NJ–Contracted Newark Airport passenger service workers say they want what some of their counterparts at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports are already getting: a pay raise. At a rally at the airport’s biggest terminal, workers spoke of their frustrations with poverty wages and lack of benefits.
Gertrudes Contreras, a cabin cleaner, said she appreciates that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is moving in the right direction United Airlines and her employer, PrimeFlight, need to join the effort.
“I am tired of working for poverty wages without benefits,” she said.
32BJ SEIU Vice President and New Jersey District Director Kevin Brown said Newark Airport is too important to the region’s economy to allow it be a haven for minimum wage jobs without benefits.
“We are going to keep fighting until workers have a living wage, affordable health care and paid sick days and paid days off. We won’t stop until our people have dignity and respect,” Brown added.
Last week, the Port Authority Operations Committee voted unanimously to direct the port’s executive director, Patrick Foye, to develop, research and outline the necessary steps to create 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.
But Newark workers say it is unfair that they were not included in an initial plan that already has some contracted passenger service workers at Kennedy and LaGuardia, employees of Delta Airlines contractors, already getting a dollar-an-hour raise. Employees of American Airlines contractors are soon to begin receiving that raise.
Foye demanded in a letter to the CEOs of the four major airlines on Jan. 28 that they institute immediate pay raises and phase-in a rise to $10.10 an hour in wages. Delta and American airlines agreed to participate in the program to improve wages and benefits at the New York City airports while JetBlue balked and United Airlines has remained silent.
But Newark workers appeared to have been left out of that plan because Foye’s letter did not mention Newark whereas it mentioned Kennedy and LaGuardia.
Dozens of Newark Liberty International Airport workers were among the almost 1,000 people who engaged in a Martin Luther King Day protest, including civil disobedience leading to the arrest of 32 political, religious and community leaders, on Jan. 20. They occupied a bridge into LaGuardia Airport as part of a demand that the Port Authority fix the problem of poverty wages paid to passenger service workers. Little did the Newark workers know that when the bi-state agency finally answered their call, Port Authority officials on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, appointees of Gov. Chris Christie, would balk at lifting New Jersey workers out of poverty.
Located in Newark and on a sliver of Elizabeth, Newark Airport is surrounded by Harrison, Kearny, East Orange, Irvington, Hillside, Orange, Belleville, North Arlington, South Orange, Bloomfield, Jersey City, Union, Bayonne, and West Orange. These municipalities—the downtown and city centers of which are within 6 miles of the airport—supply a large pool of Latino and African American workers.
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. For instance United Airlines, which dominates Newark Airport with over 70% of the passenger traffic, reported $1.1 billion in full-year 2013 profit, excluding special charges. This was an 84 Percent Increase over 2012.
One of United’s largest contractors in Newark, PrimeFlight, has a questionable record in its relationship with its employees. PrimeFlight employs approximately 636 workers in Newark and pays them as low as $8.25 with no meaningful benefits, such as affordable health insurance. The contractor has been a party to several disputes around wages in the New York / New Jersey area and around the country. Just recently, PrimeFlight agreed to pay $605,503 to settle a wage and hour class action lawsuit brought by a porter at LaGuardia Airport, even though it denied the allegations.
With more than 145,000 members in 11 states and Washington D.C., including 10,000 members in New Jersey, 32BJ is the largest property service union in the country. The union’s campaign to raise security industry standards has led to higher wages, more benefits and professional training for over 10,000 security officers.