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.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.