JERSEY CITY, NJ—Jubilant New York and New Jersey airport workers celebrated today an important landmark in their fight for dignity and economic justice at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Board of Commissioners approved a proposal to raise wages to $19 by 2023 for the 40,000 NYC-area baggage handlers, security officers, wheelchair agents, terminal and airplane cleaners and other airport workers.
The raise will constitute the highest minimum wage in the country and for New Jersey airport workers the new wage policy will give them an unprecedented $8.45 raise and parity pay with New York airport workers. It will also result in real gains for the New York airport workers themselves, who have been making $13.00 an hour.
“We did this together, we fought for so long and we won!” said Gertrudes Lopez-Ortiz, a cabin cleaner at Newark Liberty International Airport who has marched, gone on strike and even been arrested as part of the airport workers’ campaign for better jobs and better airports. “Now it is a dream come true for me and my co-workers! I was here when the Port originally promised this in 2014. Our hard work, and the support of our brothers and sisters in 32BJ is paying off.”
And, for Newark Liberty International Airport baggage handler ZaKiyy Medina, the new minimum wage is much needed. “The raise to $19 an hour will help me pay my bills on time and help me support my grandmother,” he said.
Desmond Grant, a wheelchair assistant at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, thanked the board for having the workers’ collective backs. The new wage policy will make a huge difference in the lives of workers at port facilities, he said.
“This will have a huge, positive impact for 40,000 of us and for me personally,” Grant said. “Making $19 an hour means I won’t have to constantly look for that second job just so I can make ends meet. It means I’ll be able to pay my bills on time.”
This is a historic victory for the thousands of airport workers who in 2011, tired of working for poverty wages, spearheaded one of the nation’s most successful union organizing campaigns for respect, fair pay and union rights.
32BJ SEIU President Héctor Figueroa said the new wage policy will affect all 40,000 low-wage workers at the airports, not just the 9,000 airport workers who organized themselves into the union and have led the fight to raise standards and economic justice at the airports.
“This is unprecedented and it’s your doing,” Figueroa told a boisterous crowd of airport workers outside the Port meeting in Jersey City today. “You fought for and won your union but you didn’t stop there. You won the fight for $15 in New York but knew the battle is only half won if your brothers and sisters at New Jersey’s airports have not tasted that victory.
“It is that persistence that is now helping all of you build a foundation in the middle class.”
For New Jersey airport workers the new wage policy not only gives them an unprecedented $8.45 raise, they will also achieve pay parity with New York airport workers by late next year. It will also result in real gains for the New York airport workers themselves, who are currently making $13.00 an hour, a far cry from the $7.25 an hour minimum wage when they began organizing seven years ago.
Christina Watson, Newark Liberty International Airport Worker, said this victory will also help the traveling public because better pay makes for better airports because of more stable workforces.
“I would rather have a job in my city and close to home, but I need enough to pay my bills,” she said. “I was already starting to look for a new job, but now that these raises are coming through, I am going to stay at the airport.”
But there are still challenges for workers, especially in Newark where United Airlines is threatening to sue the Port Authority over the new $19 minimum wage and announcing a contractor flip this month that has resulted in layoffs for 800 of the workers who fought for the raise.
Still, airport workers are undeterred by the airline trying to stand in the way of the improved standards that the workers have been fighting for. 19,400 contracted out baggage handlers, skycaps, cleaners, security, wheelchair and passenger service workers at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark have been organizing with 32BJ SEIU and have been at the forefront in the fight for dignity and respect on the job and the professionalization of vital services at the region’s airports. Airport service workers’ ubiquity and constant contact with passengers and other workers make them an integral part of the security and business and continuity apparatus.
In 2016, about half of the New York and New Jersey contracted out passenger service workers, who had won union recognition with 32BJ, negotiated their first contract, which now provides important workplace rights and protections including seniority rules, scheduling protocols, disciplinary procedures and health and safety guidelines. As the demand for a union was won, workers turned to the Port Authority to raise wages across the board and provide needed corrective action to the low-road airport subcontracting system that has rewarded irresponsible contractors who provide low bids using low wages and non-existent benefits.
Figueroa thanked New York Governor Cuomo for seeing that and supporting the workers and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy for also taking the side of airport workers in their struggles.
In the last few years, airport workers looking to organize with 32BJ held marches, rallies, and strikes and even got arrested on Martin Luther King Day to demand their rights. They won MLK Day as a paid holiday and were able to get the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to raise their wages from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. For some, it was the first raise they ever got at the airports. Minimum wage at the New York Airports is now $13 while it is $10.45 at Newark Airport. New Jersey’s former governor, Chris Christie, and his appointed Port Authority board members, had blocked wage increases for Newark airport workers as he and Governor Andrew Cuomo from New York shared control of the Port Authority.
Airport workers campaigned for and supported New Jersey’s current Governor Phil Murphy and when he was elected last fall, airport workers were given new hope as he called for family-sustaining wages for the state’s low wage workers.
With all airport workers benefiting from the Port Authority’s new wage and benefits plan, airport workers will now set their sights on organizing the remaining minority of 19,400 airport subcontracted workers into their union 32BJ.
With 163,000 members in 11 states, including 85,000 in New York, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country