December 14, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
Newark, NJ – A potential strike by 8,000 airline-subcontractor workers at Newark, John F. Kennedy, and LaGuardia airports was delayed Dec. 13, as the union representing them reported “a productive day of negotiations” toward their first union contract.
“Considerable progress was made Tuesday, and airport workers have postponed their strike authorization as discussions continue over the next few days,” 32BJ SEIU said in a statement. The union had set the day as the deadline to walk out if a contract wasn’t reached.
The 8,000 workers include baggage handlers, customer service agents, airport security officers, wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners, and terminal cleaners. They comprise about half of those employed at the three airports by subcontractors such as Airway Cleaners, Air Serv, Gateserve, and FJC Security Services, which airlines hire to provide those services. Most make minimum wage or slightly more, and they have been trying to organize a union for about four years. They have won recognition from 11 subcontractors, and talks on the first contract began in May.
The contract will not set wages, a 32BJ spokesperson told LaborPress, because of the way the contracting system works: If a subcontractor raises wages to the point where it would cost the airline more to hire them, “they’re just replaced.”
Instead, the union will continue to pressure the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to set minimum-wage standards for the three airports. The minimum wage at Kennedy and LaGuardia will go up to $15 an hour in 2018, but workers at Newark get the state minimum of $10.10—or $2.10 if they get tips. New Jersey’s commissioners on the Port Authority board blocked a proposal to set equal wages at all three airports in September.
The contract will include union recognition and basic workplace rights such as scheduling, seniority, and health and safety protections, according to 32BJ. How long it should be is one sticking point in the negotiations, the spokesperson said.
One employer not included is Primeflight, a United Airlines subcontractor with about 500 workers. It “held out and refused to recognize the right of workers to organize,” 32BJ organizing director Rob Hill told LaborPress in November.
If a contract is reached, 32BJ said, “New York and New Jersey airport workers will become one of the first groups of workers to win the union part of their call for ‘$15 and a union.’” A deal would also be “the first of its kind in the region” and “provide a framework for unionizing subcontracted airport workers nationwide.” But if the talks fail, the union said, the workers would most likely vote for “the largest airport strike the region has seen”—during the Christmas or New Year’s travel periods.