Philadelphia-After three hours of heated testimony from airport workers, clergy, community members and airport executives, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s Transportation & Public Utilities Committee approved a lease with US Airways that living wage and worker’s rights advocates say leaves airport workers vulnerable and stuck in poverty.
“Councilman Johnson had a choice to make: stand with working Philadelphians or stand with US Airways. He choose US Airways and consequently 2,000 airport workers, many who are his constituents, will not have a chance at earning a living wage,” said Wayne MacManiman, district director of 32BJ SEIU. “Today is a sad day for poor people in his district and throughout the City.”
Although Councilman Johnson expressed sympathy for the plight of airport workers, many who make as little as $7.25 per hour, he refused to remove lease language that excludes subcontracted workers at the airport from the city’s 21st Century Minimum Wage and Benefits Standard.
Onetha McKnight, a wheelchair attendant at the airport making $7 per hour with unguaranteed tips, testified at the hearing.
“I knew something was wrong when Councilman Johnson wouldn’t look me in the eye,” said McKnight. “As a mother of five, I know how to spot it when one of my kids is about to misbehave. While Councilman Johnson nodded in sympathy to my story, he already knew that he was going to stick it to the airport workers anyway.”
Despite being pressed by Councilman Goode to strike lease language that excludes subcontracted workers from living wage law, Johnson moved forward with a committee vote. The only language added to the lease was a non-binding resolution that could weaken protections for airport workers.
“I think we need to do more. As we move forward we’re going to make sure the issue of fair wages is put on the table regarding subcontractors out at the airport. Today was a start,” Johnson said. “They have to come back in front of us in two years for the ten-year agreement.”
Nikisha Watson, a wheelchair attendant who earns $5.25 plus unguaranteed tips, says she cannot afford to wait for two years.
Choking back tears, Watson who supports a family of four on $5.25 per hour, pleaded with Council to include the living wage in the lease.
“I get food stamps but I still go hungry. I always make sure that my family eats first, especially my daughter. I know what it means to struggle to get by,” said Watson. “Please listen to us now, you have a real chance to help us get out of poverty.”
The lease now goes to the full council for approval and a vote is anticipated on June 13 or 20. Council still has an opportunity to amend the lease on the floor so that it includes a living wage and other protections for subcontracted workers at the airport. Airport workers, 32BJ SEIU, POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild) and other groups will continue to put pressure on Council to stand up to US Airways and do the right thing for poor Philadelphians.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s vote, clergy members from POWER were quick to point out the discrepancy between Councilman Johnson’s words and his vote.
“Councilman Johnson says ‘we need to do more’ for airport workers. Well, he had the chance to help airport workers and he chose to stand with US Airways instead,” said Reverend Jarrett Kerbel, pastor of St. Martin in the Fields Episcopal Church and Board co-chair for POWER. “Airport workers are bravely standing up for their rights, while Councilman Johnson forces them to wait in poverty for two more years while he gets some courage.”
With more than 125,000 members, including 10,000 in the Philadelphia area, 32BJ is the largest property services union in the country.