O’Hare Airport Workers Block Downtown Chicago Traffic, Joining National Day of Action on MLK Day

Eli Massey

January 18, 2016, airport workers, SEIU Local 1 members and their supporters gather outside in front of United Airlines’ corporate headquarters in downtown Chicago. (Eli Massey)

On February 11, 1968, Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers declared a strike. Two sanitation workers had been crushed to death by a trash compactor; the Memphis city government offered the mourning families what they considered to be a pittance — not even enough to pay for the workers’ funerals. The mostly black sanitation workers were fed up with what they said were years of discrimination and unsafe working conditions.

Two months later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be dead, and the Memphis sanitation strike would forever be enshrined as King’s final struggle. After cancelling a trip to Africa to be with the workers, King returned to Memphis in early April — having come to support them once already in late March — only to be assassinated on April 41968.

In below zero temperatures, O’Hare Airport workers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 members and their supporters paid homage to King on Monday morning, engaging in civil disobedience in front of United Airlines’ corporate headquarters in downtown Chicago to protest working conditions and pay at the airport.

The action, one of many happening around the nation in places like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, Washington D.C., Seattle, Portland and Newark, began with a rally of about 50 people decked out in stocking caps and heavy coats. Several signs quoted Dr. Martin Luther King: All labor has worth” and Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” accompanied by a silhouette of Dr. King, his arm outstretched in impassioned exhortation.

One of the protestors, Netza Rodriguez, a SEIU Local 1 staffer, explained the significance of holding the action on Martin Luther King Day: King fought his whole life for human rights and equality for humans, and today we try to celebrate him with this, too.”

When asked why he had showed up to the action he explained, We’re here to support airport workers. Believe it or not, O’Hare airport is the most important airport in the world, and they [workers] make … close to nothing.” Given how much money O’Hare airport makes for the city, he added, the airport’s subcontractors ought to pay their workers $15 an hour, too.

Sarah Saheb, organizing coordinator for SEIU Local 1, said misconceptions about working at airports are widespread. Most people think airport jobs pay well,” but, in fact, some airport jobs, like pushing wheelchairs, pay below minimum wage at O’Hare. The wheelchair pushers are employed through a subcontractor, Prospect Aviation Services; workers say they are paid $6.25-6.75 per hour and are expected to earn the rest of their income through tips.

Raquel Brito, 20, spoke at the event. Brito works at O’Hare as a baggage handler and says she is employed by Prospect. Her aunt and grandmother also work at O’Hare, but together they still struggle to get by, especially since Brito injured herself several months ago while on the job.

Brito emphasized the importance of $15 per hour minimum wage. We need a living wage for our families and neighborhoods,” she said.

Following the protest, 14 people, a mix of airport workers and SEIU Local 1 members and supporters, made their way to the middle of the street at the intersection of Franklin and Jackson, some linking arms, and blocking traffic. Not long after, police moved in, tightening around the human chain. A crowd chanted from the sidewalk in unison. No justice, no peace!” According to one Chicago police officer, none of the 14 protestors were arrested, but instead were issued ordinance violations.

The national day of action came on the heels of a November action by security guards at O’Hare, who joined in a national one-day strike alongside workers at 10 other major airports. The strike was called after two workers were fired for union organizing, the employees said. 

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Eli Massey is an independent journalist, editor, and researcher. His work has has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Current Affairs, Jacobin, Mondoweiss, and elsewhere. He previously was an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies where he worked on Middle East politics and an editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him at @EliJMassey
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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