It was a difficult week for Muslims and Immigrants in New York City. For JFK airport workers, the political rhetoric of hate and the politics of racial and religious discrimination have hit hard right here at home. From religious discrimination in the workplace, to a physical attack on a Muslim worker, to joining thousands of protesters who rallied at JFK airport to demand the release of refugees and green card holders who were detained at JFK airport after Trump’s executive order went into effect, airport workers have been at the heart of a growing demand that Muslims and Americans in our country be treated with the respect and equality they deserve.
At a press conference on Sunday Governor Andrew Cuomo and 32BJ SEIU announced the Transportation Worker Protection Act that amends the New York State Penal Law to better protect against the assault of terminal cleaners, cabin cleaners, facilities cleaners, wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, sky caps, ticket agents, customer services employees, security guards and queue management employees. The proposed act would make an attack on an airport worker a Class D felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
According the FBI Hate Crime Statistics, in the last 5 years there were 347 hate crime incidents at air, bus and train terminals. The annual number has been rising since 2013.
“In New York, we will not allow individuals to be abused or violated based on their job, their race or religion. As the frequency of these attacks increase, so will our diligence. The Transportation Worker Protection Act provides additional safeguards for attacks on transportation workers and any such act will be prosecuted as a felony. New York has zero tolerance for intolerance, and we will work with the Assembly and the Senate to make this law a reality,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The Governor was joined at the announcement by Assemblywoman Diana Richardson, New York Public Advocate Tish James, Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, The Muslim Community Network and The Council on American-Islamic Relations for the announcement.
On January 25, Rabeeya Khan, a 32BJ member and terminal cleaner at JFK Airport, was assaulted and verbally threatened while working at the Delta Air Lines Sky Club at JFK Airport. Her assailant, Robin Rhodes, invoked President Trump and said he targeted Ms. Khan for being Muslim. This comes just days after the New York City Human Rights Commission announced allegations of racial discrimination by a JFK airport subcontractor, Pax Assist, against its airport workers. 32BJ SEIU members and airport workers have denounced these horrific, un-American attacks, along with those creating the environment in which hate speech and discrimination are on the rise.
After organizing for the last four years Rabeeya Kahn won union representation and the first raise towards a $15 an hour minimum wage in December, 2016. The union contract was the first in the region and covered 8,000 airport workers at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports. Rabeeya Kahn was able to use a clause in her new union contract that allows for emergency leave, giving her and her family time to heal after the traumatic attack.
“Every day airport workers, regardless of their religion or race, are on the front lines to keep millions of passengers safe and secure,” said Hector Figueroa, president of the airport workers’ union 32BJ SEIU. “Discrimination doesn’t only happen in the streets, it happens at work as well and our airports are international hubs, as diverse as New York itself. It’s up to all of us to protect Muslims and immigrants who may be targeted in our city. By doing this we make New York safer for us all. This important action by Governor Cuomo is an important step forward providing airport workers with a higher level of safety in return for their hard work.”
Like Rabeeya Khan, who has real reason to be afraid, too many American families are living in fear as the Trump administration unrolls its nationalist agenda of persecution and division targeting immigrants, refugees and those of Muslim faith. 32BJ is joining with elected officials, religious leaders, community allies and others to stand up and protect those who are attacked and disrespected, and to actively oppose hateful and discriminatory policies.
“We stand firmly with our sister Rabeeya Khan and send her our prayers and love at this time. What happened in this incident is totally unacceptable and un-American. We stand with elected officials demanding justice for our sister. American is bigger than that, and better than that,” said Dr. Debbie Almontaser, Board President of the Muslim Community Network.
“Our city will not stand for the discrimination and harassment of any New Yorker, Muslim or immigrant or otherwise. We will not stand idle as bigots, infected with hate, inflect fear and pain into hardworking woman like Rabeeya. I stand with our Muslim neighbors and every family of 32BJ workers,” said Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Chair of the Council’s Finance Committee.
32BJ and its allies will continue to do everything we can make to New York airports — and the world beyond — a safe place for workers, passengers, and all Americans.
With 163,000 members in eleven states and Washington, D.C., including 75,000 in New York City, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.