Municipal Government

Airport Workers Rally in the Rain for $15 Minimum

November 30, 2016
By Steven Wishnia

Newark, N.J.—Chanting “We work, we sweat, put fifteen on our check,” more than 500 people marched in the rain at Newark Airport Nov. 29 to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage and more respect for the about 10,000 workers there. The protest, organized by the 32BJ SEIU union, was part of a national Fight For $15 day of action, including a predawn march by about 1,000 people in Lower Manhattan and a sit-in where 26 people were arrested.

“It’s important for people to know that Newark Liberty Airport workers are not second-class citizens,” skycap Nancy Vazquez of Newark told LaborPress. “We deserve $15. We do the same work in all three airports owned by the same facility, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.”

Vazquez, 43, has worked as a skycap for 24 years, checking people in, giving them their boarding passes, checking their baggage, and welcoming them to the airport. She makes $2.10 an hour plus tips from AirServ, one of the subcontractors airlines hire to handle services like cleaning cabins, loading baggage, and pushing people in wheelchairs. “They’re expecting that our tips will make the $10.10,” she says, referring to New Jersey’s minimum wage, “but it doesn’t always happen. And $10.10 is poverty level anyway.”

The marchers assembled in a bus shelter near Terminal B, many clad in yellow plastic-bag rain ponchos bearing 32BJ’s purple logo, as water sluiced off the roof. They snaked through the terminal’s check-in area, a river of yellow and purple. “This is for all of you,” a big, bald man called out to three coffee-bar workers. The three smiled and raised their fists. The march oozed up the ramp to Terminal C, under leaden skies spraying cold rain. Inside, they staged a five-minute sit-in before Port Authority police ordered them to leave.

32BJ has been organizing workers at the metropolitan area’s three airports for about four years, says organizing director Rob Hill. About half of the about 14,000 employed by subcontractors have since won union recognition, and the minimum wage for those at John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia will go up to $15 in 2018.

The problem, he says, is that New Jersey’s commissioners on the Port Authority board blocked a proposal to set equal wages at all three airports in September. And Primeflight, a United Airlines subcontractor with about 500 workers, “held out and refused to recognize the right of workers to organize.”

Primeflight, Hill says, “is not the only one, but they’re the most egregious.”

“You have AirServ in New York and Newark. It’s the same company, but they have different contracts,” said Donna Hanson, a security guard at JFK. “JFK and LaGuardia won the right to $15, but our brothers and sisters here didn’t get it. Governor Chris Christie shot it down.”

Workers need $15, she adds, “because no person should have to work two jobs.” She personally doesn’t have to, she explains, because her 23-year-old daughter, a recent college graduate, lives with her and pays part of the rent.

Wheelchair assistants are not supposed to ask for tips, says Hill, but the contractors at Newark often classify them as tipped workers so they don’t have to pay the full minimum wage. The $10.10 minimum New York City workers have won is still “really below poverty level,” says JFK wheelchair assistant Yolie Jean Benoit, who works for Primeflight. She has to work 100 hours a month to make the rent on her Brooklyn apartment, and “sometimes you don’t know how many hours you have—it depends on the flights.”

“We don’t want the $15 in two years,” she says. “We want it now.”

And getting the $15 “means nothing without a union” because there’s no way to protect those gains, says Alvin Major, a KFC cook from Brooklyn who came out to be “standing in solidarity with airport workers.” Major, a 51-year-old Guyanese immigrant with four children, has been working there for five years and makes $10.50.

“We are already acting like a union, though we are not a union,” he adds. “No fast-food workers alone, no airport workers alone. The benefits we have are from coming together.”

Several hours earlier, about 1,000 people, including fast-food workers, airport workers, Uber drivers, and messengers marched from Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to a McDonald’s a block away. Larry Moskowitz, director of social justice at the Workmen’s Circle, called the turnout “fantastic, considering it was 5:30 in the morning.” He had organized a contingent of about 50 people from various Jewish groups.

Moskowitz was also one of the 26 people arrested for blocking traffic on Broadway in a sit-in in front of the McDonald’s. The others included low-wage workers from other cities, Assemblymember Francisco Moya, and City Councilmembers Brad Lander, Mark Levine, and Antonio Reynoso.

“I represent a district that sits between two major airports subcontracting work to avoid paying fair wages and benefits like affordable health care,” Moya said in a statement put out by 32BJ.

“We deserve respect,” says Donna Hanson. “We do the hard work. They reap the benefits. You have CEOs making $8,000 an hour. If we didn’t do the work, they wouldn’t make what they make.”

November 30, 2016

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