This year, some 25 million people will be traveling by air for Thanksgiving to eat to their hearts' content. The airport workers who make those trips possible — including cabin cleaners, ramp workers, and baggage handlers — will go on a 24-hour fast today to protest low wages and bad working conditions.
These airport workers — most of whom do not work directly for the major airlines but rather for contractors that the airlines hire — say that typically, that they earn low wages, that employer-sponsored health insurance is either not offered to them or is unaffordable, that many of the positions offer only part-time hours, and that they get few or no sick days. They have been protesting for years, with the ultimate goal of making $15 an hour and the right to unionize free of threats and intimidation.
Some 2,000 contract workers at seven airports, including Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, went on strike last week. A media release from the Service Employees International Union says that today, fasts are being organized at 14 U.S. airports: New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, Minneapolis, Washington (D.C.), Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Boston, and Fort Lauderdale.
SEIU spokesperson Ana Tinsly says about ten people will fast in Fort Lauderdale. She says service will not be disrupted but it will "send a clear message: Airport workers need to be respected." Tinsly says some of the workers who have been organizing over the years have faced threats, intimidation, and, in some cases, illegal retaliatory tactics from their employers. The fast, she says "will send a clear message to these companies: Intimidation tactics are not going to be tolerated."
Broward County commissioners in October voted to extend the County’s Living Wage Ordinance to these subcontracted airline workers, meaning they must be paid at least $11.68 an hour for positions that come with health benefits and $13.20 for positions that do not come with health benefits. (Many were making just $8.35.) The county has the authority to set wage minimums because the airport is a county-run facility, so commissioners can make demands of the contractors with whom it does business. For many years, the airlines essentially used a loophole by farming out duties to its subcontractors. The extension of the wage ordinance closes the loophole and will take effect in January.
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Tinsly says companies like AirServ and Eulen America take advantage of low-wage workers. In Fort Lauderdale, the SEIU represents ten workers from Sunshine Cleaning Company.
Tinsly explains that in past decades, an airport job was a good career with which a person could afford a home and a family but that such jobs have been decimated by corporate maneuvering. People complain about outsourcing jobs to China and India, Tinsly explains, but "the real threat to service jobs is domestic contractors who make money by cutting costs. By contracting, airlines don't necessarily have to provide retirement benefits or health-insurance benefits. Their profits are at an all-time high. The airline industry is doing really well, and these contractors are doing really well. The ones who not doing well are workers barely making minimum wage."
Taxpayers essentially subsidize the corporations when workers depend on public health care or other public benefits instead of being paid a living wage by employers or being offered private health care through them.
The SEIU's news release included a quote from Sandra Smith, a wheelchair attendant and cabin cleaner, who said, “I’m fasting in solidarity with the thousands of other airport workers who often have to skip meals, including Thanksgiving; can’t afford to take a day off when they’re sick; or can’t afford health insurance,” she said. “All around the country, airport workers are rising up for a living wage and union rights, in the face of threats and retaliation. We demand that our rights to organize be respected.”