The Fight For 15 Just Landed at America’s Busiest Airport

David Moberg September 30, 2015

A McDonald's worker speaks on a bullhorn outside O'Hare Airport yesterday. (Airport Workers United / Facebook)

Encour­aged by an ener­getic ral­ly of more than 100 jan­i­tors and oth­er mem­bers of Ser­vice Employ­ees (SEIU) Local 1, a group of low-wage secu­ri­ty, clean­ing and pas­sen­ger ser­vice work­ers at Chicago’s O’Hare Air­port on Tues­day launched a cam­paign to orga­nize 5,000 air­port work­ers to win high­er wages and the right to form a union with­out intimidation.

The O’Hare orga­niz­ing dri­ve hopes, first, to bring the non-union work­ers at the air­port into the Fight for $15 move­ment, ini­ti­at­ed three years ago among fast food work­ers and, accord­ing to SEIU, already respon­si­ble for rais­ing wages of 11 mil­lion work­ers. Then SEIU orga­niz­ers hope to use the ener­gy of that cam­paign for high­er pay — and what­ev­er suc­cess they have — to help cre­ate a union that can con­tin­ue to defend and bar­gain for bet­ter work­ing conditions.

The antic­i­pat­ed strat­e­gy is dif­fer­ent from most union orga­niz­ing. Orga­niz­ers typ­i­cal­ly sign up a major­i­ty of work­ers, go through an elec­tion (or a card check”) to win recog­ni­tion, then nego­ti­ate a con­tract (and each step is hard to accom­plish). But even SEIU’s ini­tial air­port work­er orga­niz­ing about 15 years ago was some­what unortho­dox: in both Los Ange­les and San Fran­cis­co labor-com­mu­ni­ty coali­tions even­tu­al­ly won for the air­ports both liv­ing wage ordi­nances and labor peace agree­ments (legal pro­vi­sions that favored giv­ing con­tracts for work at the air­ports to com­pa­nies that were not bla­tant­ly anti-union).

Over the years, SEIU has won con­tracts for such air­port work­ers as jan­i­tors, air­craft cab­in clean­ers, sky­caps, secu­ri­ty offi­cers, pas­sen­ger trans­porters (push­ing wheel­chairs for pas­sen­gers who need help get­ting around), and secu­ri­ty screen­ers at some air­ports. Recent­ly, the Fight for $15 has won ref­er­en­da, local gov­ern­ment votes, or — in New York City — a deci­sion by a gov­er­nor-appoint­ed wage board set­ting the city min­i­mum wage at their tar­get­ed $15. These vic­to­ries have raised wages of both non-union and even some union work­ers (in cas­es with con­tracts set­ting wages at less than $15). In many cas­es, UNITE HERE (or oth­er unions) have joined in such air­port cam­paigns and also won con­tracts, for exam­ple, for work­ers in air­port concessions.

Such cam­paigns depend on win­ning sup­port not only from the work­ers involved but also from the gen­er­al public.

In the cam­paign launch, Local 1 pres­i­dent Tom Bal­anoff empha­sized the hard­ship of the air­port work­ers and their fam­i­lies, and their need for $15 as a min­i­mum income for a decent life. There are thou­sands of work­ers here,” he said, most of them work­ing below the pover­ty line.”

Some work­ers, such as the pas­sen­ger trans­porters, said that they often earn less than the state or fed­er­al min­i­mum wage as a result of being clas­si­fied as tipped work­ers and suf­fer­ing man­age­ment deduc­tions of some of their tip income. Trans­porter Jack­ie Chako, a recent col­lege grad­u­ate with $40,000 in debt and fam­i­ly pres­sures to help her younger sib­lings finan­cial­ly, said that she makes $5 to $8 an hour. Air­plane cab­in clean­er Jason Davis said he gets no health insur­ance through his job: he couldn’t vis­it a doc­tor for his injured knee, and he had to pay out of pock­et for health and den­tal care for his children.

Beyond the needs of the work­ers them­selves, how­ev­er, Bal­anoff also stressed the pub­lic inter­est in rais­ing their wages. At around $15 an hour, he said, work­ers would no longer need to rely on the pub­lic safe­ty net pro­grams, which in such sit­u­a­tions amount to a pub­lic sub­sidy to big cor­po­ra­tions that can pay more and save tax­pay­ers the expense.

Also, he argued that high­er pay offered an alter­na­tive, com­mu­ni­ty-ori­ent­ed strat­e­gy for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. Rais­ing wages com­ple­ments what­ev­er devel­op­ment gen­er­at­ed by the big projects that politi­cians often like, even when they are not very pro­duc­tive — such as air­port expan­sion, down­town con­struc­tion, sta­di­ums and new tourist and enter­tain­ment des­ti­na­tions on the lakefront.

O’Hare air­port is an eco­nom­ic engine for the city,” he said. It should be an eco­nom­ic engine for the work­ers, too. The best thing for this air­port and the city is for these work­ers to be paid a liv­ing wage and to have a right to orga­nize. Then our com­mu­ni­ties will have the resources to come back.”

Before dereg­u­la­tion start­ed in the late 1970s, most of these air­port sup­port ser­vice jobs paid decent­ly, said Sil­via Ruiz, nation­al direc­tor of the SEIU’s air­ports cam­paign, but as air­lines entered a more com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment, they sub­con­tract­ed many activ­i­ties, typ­i­cal­ly dri­ving down wages as firms fought to win the contracts.

But SEIU orga­niz­ing at 16 air­ports, includ­ing sev­en of the biggest ori­gins and des­ti­na­tions of inter­na­tion­al flights, has raised wages and won some union recog­ni­tion across the coun­try, but have also pushed con­trac­tors to com­pete on qual­i­ty more than on wages. O’Hare, now the third busiest air­port, is an impor­tant link in the orga­niz­ing. Despite years of tur­moil in the now-con­sol­i­dat­ing indus­try, Unit­ed and Amer­i­can pay exec­u­tives hefty salaries, ben­e­fit from major pub­lic sub­si­dies, and can pay more for air­port ser­vice work­ers, as they have elsewhere.

But orga­niz­ing at O’Hare, where SEIU many years ago tried to orga­nize trans­porters, may be a chal­lenge because it is they major hub of two big air­lines, Unit­ed and Amer­i­can. Those air­lines have as much or more pow­er to deter­mine work­er stan­dards in most cas­es than the sub­con­trac­tors they retain, and could make a big dif­fer­ence in how dif­fi­cult orga­niz­ing at O’Hare might be.

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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