NY Airport Workers Strike, ‘Poverty Wages Don’t Fly’
Airport workers calling for higher wages and union representation rallied outside LaGuardia Airport on April 23, 2015, in Queens, New York. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)
The people who may have handled your baggage or helped you or a family member who uses a wheelchair navigate through the airport, or perhaps on or off a plane, continued their call for higher wages, more affordable benefits and union representation on April 23 in New York City.
Striking baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants, joined by dozens of union members from 32BJ SEIU and a city politician, rallied outside LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal D, calling for a union contract. For two years, Local 32BJ, part of the Service Employees International Union, which is funding the nationwide Fight for $15 campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and unionize fast-food workers, has been organizing airport workers at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airport, among the 12,000 subcontracted workers employed in New York and New Jersey.
In the last year, the airport workers, employed by Aviation Safeguards (ASG), a company contracted by airlines British Airways and Delta, have protested allegations of wage theft and intimidation by ASG, after workers received a letter from their employer stating their jobs could be terminated for participating in union activity, which the National Labor Relations Board ruled illegal. More recently, workers again received a similar notice from ASG stating that they could be fired for engaging in strikes.
Workers have also faced other forms of intimidation from their supervisors, including being told to remove union buttons and, the day before the April 23 strike, being asked if they planned to walkout, said Jordany Bueno, a LaGuardia airport worker.
“They intimidated a lot of people,” which resulted in less of his co-workers participating in the action, he told Truthout.
Bueno and other workers said that despite pressure from management, they were not afraid to speak out for higher wages and union representation, and against unfair labor practices.
Truthout spoke to a few airport workers, and 32BJ members who rallied in support of those seeking representation by their union.
Bueno, 24, has worked at LaGuardia as a wheelchair attendant for four years. He didn’t show up for his 6 am shift on April 23.
“We don’t get gloves; we don’t get any sanitation [supplies] so we go from passenger to passenger without ever really sanitizing,” said the striking worker. Sometimes passengers urinate on wheelchair seats, he added.
When he started working for Aviation Safeguards, Bueno said he was earning $7.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time. After union organizing efforts, he said, Port Authority mandated a $10.10 per hour minimum wage for airport workers, which went into effect on February 1.
Bueno, who lives with his uncle, mother and brother in Manhattan, hopes to get his own place. With student debt, rent and transportation costs, “It’s hard to start a life now with this kind of job,” he said.
The day before the strike, Azamet Soltanoff, a 29-year-old wheelchair attendant at LaGuardia, said his manager told him – at a gate, with airline passengers present – if he went on strike, he could be transferred back to his original position as a baggage handler. Like Bueno, he earns $10.10 per hour, helping passengers who use wheelchairs get to their gate, baggage claim and to their seat on the plane.
Soltanoff, who is married with a 20-month-old daughter, and lives in Queens, worries about the lack of sanitary supplies, especially gloves. “I don’t want to get my daughter sick,” he said. “We gotta keep fighting till we win the contract.”
After rallying outside LaGuardia’s Terminal D, airport workers and 32BJ union members and organizers traveled in vans to rally outside British Airways’ New York offices in Manhattan, hoping to put pressure on the airline, which could then apply pressure on its contractor ASG. But while some workers, 32BJ organizers and New York City Councilman Ben Kallos attempted to meet with an airline representative to voice their concerns, British Airways declined to speak with the group or Kallos individually.
Working as a wheelchair attendant at LaGuardia for two years, Laylarnie James, 27, of the Bronx, said she earned $7.25 per hour when she started, and got a pay bump when the minimum wage was raised, but it’s not enough.
“Aviation is not giving me enough for me to just have one job,” said James, who lives with her parents, sister and 16-month-old nephew. She works 40 hours per week at the airport, but also works a part-time retail job in order to help pay rent and other household bills.
Across the street from British Airways’ offices, where protesters held balloons and inflatable airplanes, James said she hoped the rally and union representation would allow her to “have my own place and be able to make it on my own.”
Michael Carey, 49, is a security officer at JFK airport, also employed by Aviation Safeguards and seeking union representation by 32BJ. He spent his day off rallying with fellow airport workers at LaGuardia and in Manhattan.
“To get a union of our choice, that is what I want,” Carey told Truthout. “To bring the union in, not only for me, but for workers coming after me.”
Originally from Jamaica, Carey said he’s worked at the airport for six years and loves his job, but earning $10.10 per hour has put a financial strain on his family. He supports two children, ages 24 and 14.
“I’ve been hearing people saying that minimum-wage workers don’t deserve what we are fighting for, especially the $15 [per hour],” Carey said. “People are saying, ‘Oh, get a job’ or ‘educate ourselves.’ … but if all of us leave minimum-wage workers’ jobs, who’s going to do it?
“With the help of God and a better union that we’re fighting with,” Carey added, “we’re going to get it – the $15 and the contract and especially the union to put us forward.”
Marek Nowak, 47, is a concierge and security officer at a Manhattan commercial building, and a 32BJ shop steward, who attended the rallies at LaGuardia airport and in Manhattan to show solidarity with workers seeking union representation.
“It’s a shame. How can they support their family?” said Nowak, a Polish immigrant, who has two children, and earns $22 per hour after working for his company RXR for 13 years.
Another 32BJ union member, Gertha Cadet, of Brooklyn, has been a commercial cleaner for 25 years and said she hopes more people will support the airport workers, “especially those people who fly … because [the workers] give them service.”
Originally from Haiti, Cadet said she earns about $23 per hour working in an office building in Manhattan’s Financial District. “With the [higher wage I earn], believe me, it’s not enough,” she said. “But what about them with that little minimum wage? It’s not fair.”
At JFK, Pedro Gamboa, 58, has handled flyers’ baggage for four and a half years as an ASG employee. While he said he was glad airport workers’ wages rose to $10.10 per hour in February, thanks to the Port Authority mandate, “$10.10 is just a start,” he said. And, “$15 is a good start, but … [due to the cost of living] in New York City, it’s not enough.”
Gamboa, who is from Guatemala, said he participated in Fight for $15 actions in New York City on April 15, and has become part of the wider campaign to raise the minimum wage for all low-income workers.
As a baggage handler who wakes up at 2 am to get to work on time via public transportation, Gamboa said most airline passengers “see us … but they’re not aware of the situation that we live in.”
The workers, he added, “feel that Aviation Safeguards is not standing right by us. We need better wages; we need respect.”
In the van driving from LaGuardia airport to Manhattan, one 32BJ member was hopeful that the union’s show of solidarity would have the desired effect on the airport workers’ employer and the airlines. “I think they’ll get the message,” he said. “If not, we’ll be back.”
According to a 32BJ spokesperson, the Port Authority is expected to release details of an updated health, benefits and wages mandate for airport workers on April 30.