Today, workers at JFK International Airport in New York voted to go on strike starting December 20, challenging their bosses during one of the most stressful travel times of the year and joining a recent wave of strikes by low-wage New Yorkers.
Employees with Air Serv, a contractor that hires security workers for the airport, say they chose to strike because their complaints of inadequate training and equipment were met with threats and stonewalling from their bosses. According to Prince Jackson, who’s worked at JFK for three years (and makes only $8.00 an hour with no benefits), “We’re about to walk off the job to let our employers and the passengers know that we can’t take it anymore. We’ve done everything that we could do.”
The strike decision was announced at a rally outside JFK’s Terminal 3, beneath the Delta Airlines sign. Surrounded by community members, elected officials, union organizers and workers from other industries, Jackson read out the strike vote results to a chorus of cheers. Workers’ bright-colored signs and chants of “When we fight, we win” drew supportive honks from travelers passing through as they circled the terminal.
Along with United NY and New York Communities for Change, the workers have the support of SEIU 32BJ, although the union does not represent them. According to Rahman Baksh, who’s been with Air Serv for three of his 15 years working at JFK, the security employees have faced threats of suspension and firing for talking to union representatives or to the media about their complaints — yet their petitions to the Transportation Security Administration, to the New York Port Authority, and to Air Serv about safety concerns have gone unanswered. State Sen. Tony Avella said that he too had sent letters to the Port Authority and TSA over the workers’ concerns and he, too, was still waiting for a response.
Air Serv was founded by Frank Argenbright, who became notorious as the founder and CEO of Argenbright Security. The company did airport passenger screenings before 9⁄11 — and was in charge at two of the three airports from which 9⁄11 hijackers departed. “Argenbright has become a synonym for failure,” said then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay in 2001 (before his own disgrace).
Yet the man whose name was a synonym for failure was able to come up with money for a new company. Though his employees no longer do personal security screenings, they are responsible for guarding doors and checking bags, for which they receive just-above minimum wage.
New York City Public Advocate (and expected mayoral candidate) Bill DeBlasio, who spoke in support of the workers at their press conference, noted that to have a real, dependable security team at the airport, workers should be paid well and given proper training, treated with respect and given opportunities for career advancement. Instead, they’re in high turnover jobs, and when they speak up about security problems, they’re silenced. “If they see something, management not doing their jobs, they need to be able to speak up and the only way they can do that is if they are represented by a union,” DeBlasio said.
Workers at Global Elite, another airport security contractor, will hold a strike vote tomorrow. Like the fast food, car wash and grocery workers who rallied with them last week in Times Square, the airport security guards at both firms are frustrated with their low pay, lack of raises and benefits, and disrespect on the job. But for them, it’s also about safety. Jackson and Baksh take their jobs seriously and expressed frustration at their lack of proper equipment: radios without batteries, no uniform jackets for workers who are outside in all weather conditions. Jackson pointed out that if workers are cold outside, they’re going to be more concerned with getting inside than with keeping a watchful eye out.
Training is also an issue, say the workers. Baksh related the story of a new hire committing a security breach by allowing a passenger to return to the plane after passing through the exit gate. “This could be anyone else, not a passenger reentering,” Baksh explained. And yet the untrained worker was placed on the same shift the next day.
“Everyone deserves to earn a decent wage, everyone deserves to have the proper training,” said State Assemblyman Rafael L. Espinal, Jr., who represents the 54th district not far from the airport. He’s working in Albany to get a minimum wage increase passed — to $8.50, which would at least mean a small raise for Jackson and Baksh and their colleagues.
The decision to strike without formal recognition of the union is part of a growing trend for labor. Non-unionized workers are building support by pushing for incremental wins, better treatment and an end to retaliation before an NLRB election rather than after. Small wins by the workers draw in more workers, who see the benefit of collective action. It’s a risky move, as disruptions in holiday travel don’t make most people very happy, but they’ve given their bosses one week to take their security complaints seriously and avert a work stoppage. “I don’t want to strike,” Jackson said. But they feel they’ve been left with no other choice.
The willingness of the JFK employees to strike at peak travel time demonstrates the growing strength and determination of New York City’s lowest-paid workers. Bronx car wash workers voted just days ago to join RWDSU, and fast food workers like Truvon Shim, who addressed today’s rally, are already reporting better treatment on the job. The victories in one industry are carrying over to others, and politicians and bosses are starting to take notice.
“I feel confident today because I voted for a union, without fear,” Baksh said.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.