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Working In These Times

Friday, Oct 26, 2012, 1:12 pm

New Contract Spells Good News for 1,200 Chicago Airport Workers—Unless City Moots It

BY Kari Lydersen

Aida Olavarria could lose her union job at O'Hare airport if Chicago chooses a new contractor.   (Kari Lydersen)

On Oct. 19, after four months of bargaining, UNITE HERE Local 1 union ratified a contract ensuring better wages and health insurance for 1,200 store, café and restaurant workers at Chicago’s two airports, O'Hare and Midway. The new contract with company HMS Host will put a total of $10 million more in airport workers’ pockets, which means $10 million more circulating in the working-class Chicago neighborhoods where many of them live, says UNITE HERE Local 1 president Henry Tamarin.

But the contract could become moot if the Chicago Department of Aviation, which administers the airports, decides to hire different companies for the concessions contracts up for renewal this fall. The department is currently conducting bidding on three-quarters of the food and retail contracts at O’Hare and Midway airports, worth around $250 million annually, according to UNITE HERE. If new contractors are hired, they could lay off up to 1,500 existing workers (including those in Local 1) and bring in new workers at lower wages, without union representation.

That’s why union leaders, workers, pastors and a handful of Chicago aldermen are calling for passage of the Stable Jobs, Stable Airports ordinance. The ordinance mandates a living wage for airport concessions workers and requires new contractors to hire existing workers for a trial period of 90 days. It would close what the union calls a “loophole” in the city’s Living Wage Ordinance, which mandates a living wage of $11.53 an hour for other contractors on city jobs, but does not apply to airport concessions.

Hundreds of workers and their supporters met at the Chicago Temple on Tuesday morning and then held a rally on the second floor of City Hall, calling on the aldermen on the city council’s aviation committee to move the ordinance forward.

Tameka Shivers, who spoke at the gathering, has been working at O’Hare through HMS Host for six years. She has three kids, including an 8-year-old with Down’s Syndrome and a 3-year-old who is a carrier for sickle cell disease, making health insurance unaffordable.

“I make $10.50 an hour, which is not a living wage here in Chicago, but due to the new victory which we won last week, in a year I’ll be making a living wage,” she told the crowd at the temple. “This is a huge victory not only for me but for my family and my coworkers and their families as well. I will be able to move my kids into a safe neighborhood … and with the new contract I will be able to afford health insurance.”

When the ordinance goes up for a vote, she said, “I’m calling on all the aldermen to remember meremember this beautiful single mother who has been fighting for security for her children.”

Aida Olavarria, 62, started working at a restaurant at O’Hare International Airport 25 years ago, after selling the small grocery store on Chicago’s northwest side that she had owned for 16 years. Like the grocery store, her restaurant cashier job gives her the chance to interact with people all day, so she enjoys it even though the wages are low and she is often rushing to do several jobs at once–delivering salads and condiments while she is supposed to be working the register. Since she helps support her daughter and grandson, getting by is a struggle.

“When you have to pay the rent, the groceries, the car, health insurance, and some people have kids to send to college, these days it is too hard,” she tells Working In These Times. “These companies make good money, they could pay us a little more.”

Aldermen speaking at the temple referred to their own immigrant and working class family histories in describing the ripple effect of decent jobs in building strong communities. Alderman Danny Solis described his Mexican immigrant father working three jobs while his mother worked at a Laundromat. Alderman Tim Cullerton, a union member for 42 years, noted that his family came to Chicago during the Irish potato famine.

“We started working on the Illinois Michigan canal in the mud and the muck—we had to buy our shovels from the company store, we had to buy our food from the company store—but that job gave us our dignity,” he said of the family history. He said economic conditions in the northwest part of the city he represents are the toughest he’s ever seen them. “We have the highest foreclosure rates I have seen…when I’m campaigning, many people aren’t home on weekends and nights—they are out working two or three jobs, trying to hold on to their homes. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re not asking for a bailout, we’re just asking for some dignity and living wages.”

Peggy Willis has worked for seven years at a Starbucks at O’Hare, and she said she has regular customers who know she will have their favorite drinks ready for them. She is counting on the job to put her three-year-old son Jeremiah through college. “He will go to college no matter what,” she said.

As David Moberg reported for Working In These Times last March, UNITE HERE Local 1 now represents about 1,300 out of 2,300 total airport concession workers, thanks to years of organizing. But new concessions could gut their efforts and mean lower wages across the board.

Academic studies have shown that paying all Chicago airport concession workers a living wage would mean up to $8 million annually in extra wages, and that 18 other major airports have policies similar to the proposed airport ordinance, including LAX, JFK, LaGuardia, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Newark, San Diego and Cleveland. A similar ordinance was introduced in Chicago last year but never passed; now it’s on the city council docket again. Citizen Action Illinois co-director William McNary said the price increases needed to pay workers a living wage are minimal.

“This is not going to cost people a whole lot of money,” he said. “To add either 16 or 19 cents to that hamburger so workers can have a living wage, so Peggy can think about her son going to college. We’re not asking to break the bank, we’re asking the people who make millions to give up nickels.”

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at

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