Airport Workers to Launch Worldwide Protests for Higher Pay, Improved Working Conditions

AP Photo/Robert E. Klein

Jet Blue Airlines baggage handlers offload baggage from an Airbus 320 at gate C19 at Logan International Airport in Boston.

With the unmistakable cacophony of airport noise in the background, Tim Maddox, a wheelchair attendant, takes a break from talking with workers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to speak with me. Maddox is organizing for next week’s global day of action for airport workers.

“There’s been a real assault on unions, labor, and workers,” says Maddox who is an executive board member of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Service Workers Westwhich represents thousands of service workers across California“So, we’re standing up for better jobs at the airport—to be able to have a voice on the job, and have respect on the job.” 

Next Tuesday, October 2, airport workers around the world will protest for better worker protections and for union rights. According to SEIU, workers in at least 43 airports in 13 countries—airports that control 36 percent of global air travel—will demonstrate. These actions will include workers at 11 major U.S. airports in Boston, Newark, Miami, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Baltimore. In France, workers at all airports will go on strike. (SEIU is one of over a dozen unions, alongside global union federations, coordinating the demonstrations.) 

Airport contract workers, who include baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants, security officers, janitors, and others often earn low wages and receive few or no benefits, even as the airlines they provide services for report astronomical profits. These jobs used to pay living wages, but today airlines typically contract these positions out to private companies, a cost-cutting practice that developed after U.S. deregulation in the 1970s, only to increase after the industry’s nosedive following September 11. 

Since then, outsourcing has grown substantially and wages have drastically fallen—alongside other common, profit-hungry practices like implementing “ancillary fees”: airlines charges for carry-on luggage, more leg room, and certain seats, all of which used to be free. 

In 2002, 25 percent of U.S. baggage handler jobs were outsourced—by 2012, 84 percent were outsourced. Across that same decade, average real pay for baggage handlers fell from $19 an hour to $10.60. 

Among jobs that were originally outsourced, working conditions have gotten worse. Earl Martin, a contract baggage handler at the Miami International Airport, says that the original contractor he worked for over a decade ago was generous—but the current contractor, not so much. Martin says that the new company he works for charges workers for everything—uniforms, parking, fingerprints—all of which the company he used to work for covered, but what now cuts into his income.

“Brenda” (her name has been changed to protect her identity) has worked in customer service at the Miami airport for nearly 20 years, has had a similar experience. Before 9/11, the contractor she worked for provided benefits. Yet after the disaster, the airline changed the contractor—“[and] with this one, we don’t have anything but a paycheck,” she says. But she’s currently fighting to start a union. “for better pay, better health care—paid insurance, and paid sick days.” 

Across the U.S., about a fifth of airport workers in commonly-contracted out positions are paid less than $9 per hour. Some people receive less than the minimum wage because they’re tipped employees. Many others are not assigned enough hours throughout the year, which reduces their income. As a result, almost a third of airport contract workers in the U.S. receive public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid, and more than a third report economic hardship. Maddox told The American Prospect about workers who sleep in their cars because they cannot afford rent. Indeed, 37 percent of airport workers are rent-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. 

“Sometimes my grandkids come [visit] and I don’t have money to buy them ice cream from the ice cream truck when it passes by,” says Martin. “But I’m a working man,” he adds in sheer disbelief that pocket change is hard to come by, when so many others—like airline executives—have so much.

Globally, airport worker conditions can be even starker. In Thailand, workers may be paid just $10 a day, and in Indonesia, some workers have an hourly wage of $1.50. Even in Europe, which enjoys a climate considerably friendlier to unions than the U.S., airlines increasingly outsource jobs to private contractors that prioritize cutting costs—that is, wages and benefits.

In Germany, airport workers’ wages and labor standards, have been falling for the past decade, according to Katharina Wesenick, a representative for the German union Ver.di. In an email to the Prospect, she pointed out that German airports’ consistent understaffing threatens the health and well-being of workers which in turn affects safety and security.

But the international airline industry is expected to reap $38.4 billion in profits this year. It also receives billions of dollars in public subsidies: in the U.S., airlines receive an average $13 billion in subsidies annually. U.S. airlines also received a windfall in tax savings due to the GOP’s tax reform in 2017. After pocketing billions, carriers like Southwest Airlines and American Airlines gave one-time bonuses to their employees—their direct employees like pilots, flight attendants, and others, of course.

This focus on the shareholder at labor’s expense is why airport workers are demonstrating next Tuesday. “We hope to be huge and we hope to be loud,” Maddox tells the Prospect. At LAX, they’ll demonstrate in front of Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, carriers that have ended contracts with companies with worker unions and moved to contract companies that are non-union, and let passengers know about their chosen airlines’ business practices. 

It’s not only contract workers who will be supporting the day of action. Maddox says that they have a lot of supporters among airline employees. He says that sometimes airline workers will “throw up a fist or send a peace sign” to the union contract workers in motions of solidarity. After all, they could be next. Maddox told me about speaking with a United employee who said, “I’m with you—our contract is coming up in 2020 and I’m scared as hell.” 

Maddox traveled to Amsterdam this past July, meeting with airport workers from six different countries, including the U.S., Germany, Indonesia, Korea, the Netherlands, and Thailand, to plan October’s far-reaching protest. He described conditions for airport workers in other countries as “like a mirror image” to what workers face in the U.S. Some of these contracting companies working overseas are the same ones undercutting workers in the U.S.

German workers are demanding a national sectoral agreement, which would “establish a level playing field” between companies—in other words, bargaining would occur at the industry level, instead of the individual company level. As the Prospect has reported, workers may need to go beyond individual unions to secure adequate worker protections for the entire sector.

“We are determined that this is the only option to make sure that competition will no longer be at the expenses of both the workers and the safety and security of the industry,” Wesenick wrote in an email to the Prospect. The global movement, she added, “[is] going to keep growing until airport workers in every country can put food on the table and afford decent housing.”

Not only will raising wages and increasing benefits of airport workers keep these workers more economically secure, it’s also beneficial for airline passengers, since such improvements would decrease airport worker turnover—and high worker turnover leads to reduced safety and security in airports.

Worker pay increasing along with retention is exactly what happened in San Francisco. Beginning in 2000,  San Francisco International Airport adopted a comprehensive package that raised airport worker wages, increased education and training standards at the airport, instituted health coverage and paid sick leave for airport workers, and also implemented worker protections if an airport contract worker lost their job. The result was that worker retention, performance, and morale drastically rose, according to a 2003 study from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley. 

In 2013, John Martin, San Francisco’s airport director who oversaw the implementation of the workplace standards package, wrote a New York Times op-ed in support of a living wage standards push at Seattle’s airport. “Airport safety is not well served when exhausted employees have to work two jobs just to make ends meet,” he said. “The program’s success rate can be measured by the extraordinarily high retention rate of our employees.” 

Because U.S. airports are owned by state and local governments, municipalities can make considerable efforts to raise labor standards. Unions can exert pressure on public officials even as the major airline lobby, Airlines for America, spends millions lobbying against passenger- and worker-friendly proposals. But recently, airport workers’ unions have been counting wins. Since 2016, SEIU has added 11,000 new airport-worker union members. 

Airport contract workers in the U.S. have consistently been organizing for better wages and working conditions. Airport workers in cities across the country, including the giant travel hubs of Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have also either won union contracts or better worker protections. Just last week, airport workers in Orlando protested for a living wage. 

Recently, 40,000 airport workers in New York, who work at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark, may soon win a $19 hourly wage, gradually phased in by 2023. (The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey must finalize the raise this week.) Gertrudes Lopez-Ortiz, a cabin cleaner in Newark, “cannot wait” for this wage to better help her family, she says, speaking in Spanish through a translator. Lopez-Ortiz supports her family in New Jersey, but also her mother who lives in Peru. She says that in the past few months management has been treating workers better and with more respect—no longer requiring overtime, for example—because they’ve realized that “we’re not going away,” says Lopez-Ortiz. She and her coworkers have been trying to organize a union since 2012.

Maddox has worked at LAX for 24 years. For the last ten of those years, LAX airport workers have had a union with “the strongest collective bargaining agreement for airport workers in the country,” he says. Before the union, he and his coworkers had very low wages, no paid days off, and no health care. 

Maddox and other airport workers ultimately had to strike to send a strong message to their contract employer to recognize the union. Since then, Maddox and his coworkers have won better wages, better family health care, and more rights on the job. But there is still more to do both here in the U.S. and globally. And October 2 will be one such fight.“Going forward, we really have to fight all around—whether for the workforce or politically,” Maddox says. 

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