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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 10, 2012, 4:00 pm

Workers Try to Organize Airport Subway, Get Fired

BY David Bacon

Hakima Arhab says the Subway at the Oakland airport fired her for trying to organize a union.   (David Bacon)

OAKLAND, CA—This city is supposed to be a union town, but out at the airport, workers say they're getting fired for trying to join one. The airport is administered by the Oakland Port Commission, whose members, appointed by the mayor, are mostly viewed as progressives. The commission has passed a living wage ordinance that not only sets a level much higher than state or national minimum wage laws, but also requires companies who rent space to respect the labor rights of their workers.

One of the workers fired recently is Hakima Arhab, who says she lost her job at the Subway concession after she complained about violations of the ordinance, and because she and her coworkers are trying to join UNITE HERE Local 2850.

Arhab told her story to Working In These Times:

I worked at Subway for a year and a half. When I got the job there I thought that I would have a better life. It should be a good job. I thought I'd have more money, and be able to afford a few more things for myself, and be able to send money to my home country, because I have family there. When I started at the airport I was getting $12.82 an hour, and then it went up to $13.05.

Most people go through the airport and see us from one side of the counter, but from our side it feels really different. It turned out to be like working in hell. When the airport was busy, there were huge long lines—sometimes it seemed like 100 people. We had to wait on them, and make the orders up at the same time. Sometimes I thought I'd fall down from being so tired, but I'd eat something sweet and go back to my job.

The schedule was always changing, and it turned out to be just a part-time job. They kept cutting peoples' schedules. Whenever we would hear that they were going to hire someone, everyone would get scared because we were afraid our hours would be cut.  They'd hire people and give them our hours.

Then they told us that if we worked two days in the airport, we should work outside too.  The owners have many other Subway stores, so they'd pressure me to work for them outside the airport. And it was a hard job too. But I did it because I was scared that if I didn't they would fire me from the airport job.

They expected me to work outside the airport if I wanted a full time set of hours, but the work outside was at a different wage. That work only paid minimum wage—$8 an hour.  They'd send me around to all their stores. Sometimes I'd open one store, and then go close at another one. I worked overtime, but they didn't pay me overtime pay. They'd give you separate checks, so you'd never get overtime pay.

I was very angry about that, but they refused to give me a full schedule at the airport. They even wanted me to work seven days a week, but since they wouldn't pay overtime, at first I said no—that was too much. Many of my coworkers did, though, because they couldn't afford to say no. If you said no, then the owners would cut your whole schedule.

So I also just shut up and worked too. And the worst part was that sometimes when I'd work 50 or 60 hours, they wouldn't pay for all those hours. They'd be short an hour or an hour and a half.

I knew some other workers who work at HMS Host concessions right next to us, and I knew they had a union. Last spring I got very sick, but I still had to work, because otherwise, how was I going to pay for my rent or my food? I was so, so angry. One of them asked me, "Hakima, do you want to speak to the union?" I told her, "Yes, I want to do it." So I set up an appointment with the union, and asked them to help us: myself, my coworkers and all the workers who work hard in the airport without benefits or sick days.  That's how it happened.

Finally I filed a complaint with the government, with the Port of Oakland. But they didn't take it seriously. It was like they were just playing around, and told us it would take months to investigate. And I needed my job, especially after I was fired.

On May 29 I took unpaid vacation, for 20 days. The owner agreed that I could do that when I told her four months before. But I filed the complaint before I took the time off. She found out, because the Port gave her the names of the people who complained.

So when I came back on June 19, she gave me a check for the days I worked before the vacation. She told me, "Hakima, you know, I'm very very slow right now. I don't have any more hours for you." I told her, "No, no, no. Don't play with me. I know you just took in $5,500—you're making the highest amount ever here in the airport. How can you tell me that?"

And just two days later, she hired another worker at the airport. She just wanted to kick me out because I'd gotten involved in the union, and I stood up and filed a complaint. Because I was demanding my rights. That's why she fired me.

Last week we had a rally out at the airport, to support me and the other workers who have been fired. We even had a chant in Berber. That's the home language of North Africa, and I'm from a little Berber town in Algeria. And the meaning is "We are Berber, we are people who would rather fight and be fired than work without rights."

The union says several other workers have faced retaliation as well. Isaac Kos-Read, director of external affairs for the Port of Oakland, says the port takes the complaints very seriously, but called it "an open ended thing. It could take as little as a month or as many as three months. We don't know." By now, the port is investigating 15 complaints. Meanwhile port security is writing up workers if they use their badges to go into the airport to meet with employers or other workers.

Nevertheless, "the port prides itself on providing jobs, and union jobs. Over 70% of the jobs at the port are union jobs," Kos-Read says. "We assiduously enforce the living wage ordinance."

David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013), Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

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