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Bent, But Not Broken: Airport Workers Must Continue Minimum Wage Fight

February 16, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

Eduardo Lopez.
Eduardo Lopez.

New York, NY – The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s failure to include over 1,000 airport workers in a plan to bump up salaries to $10.10 an hour has left frustrated in-flight and lounge employees emotionally devastated and deeply distraught – but the union representing them is vowing to continue the fight. 

Cold weather rallies held outside the airports and impassioned testimonies delivered at Port Authority hearings throughout 2014, eventually moved the agency to support boosting the salaries of a limited number of JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airport workers under a newly-established Minimum Wage Policy. 

Continued agitation susequently led the Port Authority to further recommend extending the new $10.10 minimum wage to airport concession workers, including those working in food, beverage and retail, by April 1, of this year. 

Paradoxically, however, the Port Authority has stopped short of including in-flight and lounge workers — some of whom are scrapping by on less than $9 an hour. 

News of the unequal wage policy hit employees hard, and sent Unite Here Local 100 telephones buzzing with outraged workers.

“Local 100 is glad that the policy is being extended to food and beverage people in the concessions,” union head Bill Granfield told LaborPress this week. "That’s a few thousand people deserving of the $10.10 minimum wage. But we are opposed to excluding the in-flight caterers. It’s the single largest group of people that need and deserve that $10.10 minimum wage.”

Eduardo Lopez, 27, is one of those workers. For the last two-and-a-half years, he's worked full-time stocking beverage carts for Sky Chef out of Building 139 at JFK. Lopez is so straped for cash, that he says he sometimes skips eating for a day. Another Sky Chef co-worker reportedly lives in a homeless shelter. 

“This hurts me a lot,” Lopez says. “As soon as I walk into that building, I already feel the pressure. I just feel really uncomfortable. Sometimes I feel like giving up.”

In addition to the low-pay and condescending supervisors, Lopez says that Building 139 is also now cold and crowded after Sky Chef —reportedly citing high rent — decided to shutter its Building 122 operations in January, and shift hundreds of workers to Building 139. 

“It’s really bad,” says union organizer Miguel DeLa Rosa. “I feel really frustrated. And many workers have to work two jobs just to feed their families. That’s not acceptable.”

Undaunted, the union will once again rally workers and march into the next Port Authority hearing slated for February 19, in Jersey City in a bid to raise dismally low wages. 

“People see the hypocrisy,” fellow organizer Dan Gillespie says. “The cost of the living is going up everywhere. But when it comes to applying the $10.10 to in-flight caters, the Port Authority balks. It’s not for lack of hearing from the workers because we’ve been there every month.”

Struggling workers are not alone. Many elected officials, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have joined them at past demonstrations. 

In a letter to the Port Authority dated February 5, 2015, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer chastised the agency, calling its decision to exclude in-flight and lounge workers from the amended Minimum Wage Policy “unfair and unjust.”

Although the frustration level is high, labor organizers say that the Railway Labor Act which governs labor relations in the railway industry as well as the airlines industry, precludes the possibility of a strike. 

Many find that situation particularly vexing, because while subject to the Railway Labor Act, the Port Authority maintains that in-flight and lounge employees are actually “third party, non-Port Authority workers.”

Despite ongoing criticism, the Port Authority insists that it has “taken a leading role in seeking higher wages for third-party contract workers employed at the region’s airports.” 

The proposed amendment to the Minimum Wage Policy which excludes in-flight and lounge workers, is currency in a 60-day public comment period. 

Unite Here Local 100 reports that it has notice of over 200 comments in support of those workers.

“We made it very clear twice this week alone that we want them to be included,” Granfield says. “We’re going to continue communicating with our members and urging them to tell the Port Authority that they deserve to be included. I think everyone knows that anyone who works at the Port Authority deserve at least a $10.10 minimum wage.”

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