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JFK Airport Workers Answer Union-Busting Bosses With 24-Hour Strike

October 22, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

Striking Eulen workers with Council Member Mathieu Eugene at JFK’s Terminal 8.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Workers for airline contractor Eulen at John F. Kennedy International Airport went out on strike for 24 hours Oct. 21, demanding that the company stop interfering with their efforts to organize a union.

“This really is about dignity,” 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg told about 100 people picketing outside the airport’s Terminal 8. “It’s about a company that needs to learn to treat workers with respect.”

“The truth is, we need a union,” said worker Alicia Brown. 

“The workers have been fighting to organize for a long time,” Bragg told LaborPress before the rally. “They want to have a voice on the job and not be intimidated every day. Eulen needs to get right with these workers.”

Union officials say Eulen America, which employs about 300 workers at Terminal 8, has intimidated workers by holding captive-audience meetings to tell them the union only wants their money, supervisors going up to groups of workers and asking if they’re talking union, and cutting the hours of union supporters. 

“They start making threats about our shift assignments,” Brown said.

Another issue, 32BJ says, is that Eulen doesn’t pay workers the uniform allowance required by state law. 

32BJ has been organizing workers for contractors at the New York area’s three airports for about seven years. Those companies do services the airlines have outsourced—cleaning cabins, security, pushing passengers in wheelchairs, “bag runners” who load and unload luggage, and passenger service representatives who control the crowds going through Customs and help people navigate the new automated passport-checking kiosks.

Eulen America workers on the picket line.

Union officials say that most of the contractors—including Airway, Aviation Safeguard, and PrimeFlight, have signed contracts with 32BJ, which has won a $15.60 an hour minimum wage that’s scheduled to go up to $19 in 2023. 32BJ now claims 10,000 members at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. But Eulen, the Spain-based company that handles services at Terminal 8—base of American Airlines and smaller international carriers including Cathay Pacific and Qantas—is one of the holdouts, they say. 

The union postponed a similar strike planned for Newark. It held a similar one-day walkout in June at JFK and airports in Miami, Washington, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 

“Eulen America denies all of the allegations being made by the union as they are simply part of a campaign of falsehoods designed to further the union’s agenda,” company CEO Xavi Rabell said in a statement. “As of this date, the majority of our employees have told us they are not interested in the SEIU’s repeated attempts to influence them to join their union.”

Several elected officials who spoke at the rally said that Eulen America had asked them to meet with Rabell. Councilmember Adrienne Adams (D-Queens) said she’d received a letter from the company’s lawyer, who she said “wants me to believe that we are making all of this up about unfair labor practices.” Assemblymember Edward C. Braunstein (D-Queens) said that Rabell had sent him an email saying “the workers aren’t telling the truth.”

“Shame on Eulen”: Fed up airport workers walked off the job JFK Airport on Monday.

“That shows that they’re getting nervous,” he told the rally.

Other elected officials who spoke included Assemblymembers Brian Barnwell and Aravella Simotas, both of Queens; Assemblymember Jaime Williams of Brooklyn; Councilmembers Francisco Moya and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens; and Councilmember Mathieu Eugene of Brooklyn.

“What century are we living in that a company doesn’t give basic accommodations to a pregnant employee?” Moya asked. “It’s shameful that this company comes here and doesn’t respect the right to organize.”

He was referring to wheelchair attendant Hacheler Cyrille, who had asked for a less strenuous job after she became pregnant. She instead was given duty as a bag runner. In May, she was injured when she fell onto the conveyor belt.

Other workers at the rally had similar complaints. Passenger service representative Vanessa Ramhissoon of Queens told LaborPress that the company punishes workers who don’t want to work different jobs. “If they want us to do bag runner and we don’t want to, we get sent home,” she said.

“Basically, they treat us unfair,” said wheelchair attendant Lasonia Whervin of Queens, mother of a 2-year-old son. Workers qualify for an hour of paid time off for every week where they work at least 30 hours, but “we don’t even make it to 30 hours.” Sometimes, she says, they get sent home early, and since Eulen stopped paying workers for their half-hour breaks, her hours have topped out at 28 a week. 

“This company could be so much better,” she says. “They’re just not living up to their potential.”

“We’re going to keep fighting,” said Vladimir Clairjeune, a passenger service representative wearing a “Poverty Wages Don’t Fly” baseball cap

October 22, 2019

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