July 30, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Governor Andrew Cuomo and Vice-President Joe Biden kicked off the week eagerly anticipating a $4 billion makeover that promises to one day turn embarrassingly awful LaGuardia Airport into a beautiful and enviable swan — apparently less of a concern, however, is the pervasive ugliness that poverty wages continue to foster upon the lives of 12,000 airport workers.
The plight of hard-pressed security officers, baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants could have hardly escaped the high-powered executives — not when airport workers managed to narrowly avert a devastating strike only a few days prior to the governor’s ambitious project announcement at a tony Association for a Better New York luncheon on Monday.
The omission certainly did not escape SEIU 32BJ President Hector Figueroa who subsequently issued a statement reflecting the union’s profound disappointment that the governor’s grand vision of a reimagined LaGuardia Airport seemingly does not include eliminating the sweatshop conditions that endure inside the decaying travel hub.
“32BJ opposes a modernization plan for our airports at taxpayer expense that only profits airline carriers and developers while keeping workers in poverty,” Figueroa said in a statement. “We need a plan for LaGuardia that benefits business, travelers, workers and all New Yorkers.”
While Governor Cuomo’s specially convened Wage Board recently recommended lifting the minimum wages of fast food workers to $15 an hour, airport workers — many earning little better than 10 bucks an hour after a decade or more of service — continue to languish, splitting their time between two and three jobs in a courageous attempt to feed their families.
"All of us want to see LaGuardia become a better airport for everyone who uses it," 52-year-old wheelchair attendant Esteban Ramirez told LaborPress. "But it seems like the governor and the Port Authority are forgetting about the workers. We are the people who keep the airport running and improving our wages and working conditions must be an important part of upgrading LaGuardia Airport.”
Despite the billions of dollars being spent, Edwin Figueroa, a 26-year-old electric cart operator, says that there is simply no way LaGuardia will ever become a world-class airport if workers are still making poverty wages, don't have benefits and don't have a union to represent them.
"Most of us are black or Latino and the plans I have been seeing on the news pretty much leaves workers of color behind,” Figueroa told LaborPress. “Right now, LaGuardia is a sweatshop. Good jobs and better working conditions are civil rights issues."
Vincent Alvarez, head of the New York City Central Labor Council, is calling on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to finally do something to lift low-wage airport workers out of poverty.
“While this project expansion is a step in the right direction, it is imperative the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey act quickly on its long-delayed plan to ensure all airport workers are treated fairly and earn the prevailing wages and benefits they deserve,” Alvarez said in a statement. “We cannot truly modernize LaGuardia airport if 12,000 men and women working for poverty wages are left behind.”
More than 1,000 airport workers poised to strike on July 22, were pulled back from the brink after Delta Airlines contractor Aviation Safeguards finally agreed to collective bargaining with 32BJ.
A newly-announced Port Authority task force is purportedly pursing higher wages, but the union says it’s already taken far too long for those responsible for the city’s airports to act on promises it made last year.