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Despite Healthy Terminals Act, Contractors Deny Health Care to Airport Workers

“If we have to strike, then so be it.” — JFK Airport workers.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—More than 200 airport workers rallied at John F. Kennedy airport April 21, protesting their employers’ refusal to include mandated health-care coverage in the contract now being negotiated. The employers also want to eliminate Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday, according to the 32BJ SEIU union.

The Healthy Terminals Act, signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last Dec. 31 and awaiting New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy‘s signature after it was passed by both houses of the state legislature last month, requires employers at airports to contribute $4.54 for health insurance for each hour an employee works. It is mainly aimed at the airline subcontractors who hire cleaners, security guards, baggage handlers, customer-service representatives, catering workers, and others at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports.

But the group of 23 contractors negotiating a contract covering more than 10,000 workers at the three airports has been reluctant to put the mandate into practice, 32BJ says.

Our biggest demand is health care, but we have made very little progress with the employers,” JFK cabin cleaner Venice Russell, a member of the union’s bargaining committee, told LaborPress before the rally. 

The contract talks began in early March, and the old agreement expired April 1.

“We won meaningful health care that all essential workers should have, and now the employers are trying to strip that away from us,” Vladimir Clairjeune, a JFK passenger service representative, told the rally. “If we have to strike, then so be it.”

 “We cleaned every doorknob, we disinfected every corner of the airport,” LaGuardia terminal cleaner Cristina Mendez said, speaking in Spanish. “If they don’t give us health care after risking our lives during the pandemic, when will they?”

“We are not going to leave COVID without you having health care.” — Eric Adams

The union-avoidance law firm Seyfarth Shaw has questioned whether New York would be able to impose prevailing-benefits requirements unless New Jersey enacted a similar law. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce opposes the Healthy Terminals Act, saying it would “threaten job security by imposing new mandates and burdens on businesses and workers.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who 32BJ has endorsed for mayor, told the rally that the fight was about “making a decision here and now what this city is going to look like” in the near future.

“Before COVID, you did not have health care,” he said. “We are not going to leave COVID without you having health care.” 

The conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on murder charges the day before for crushing the breath out of George Floyd weighed on many people’s minds.

“In order to achieve true racial justice, we must achieve economic justice. That’s why we’re out here today,” 32BJ President Kyle Bragg declared after speaking about the verdict. 

 “Yesterday justice was served in court,” Russell said. “Today we want justice in the workplace.”

“With all that’s going on today,” she told LaborPress, the contractors’ bid to cancel the King Day paid holiday is particularly disappointing.

“We fought long and hard for Martin Luther King Day,” she averred. “We are not going to give it back. We’re 32BJ.”

Talks will resume on Friday, Apr. 23, 32BJ vice president and director of organizing Rob Hill told LaborPress after the rally. The union is still waiting for the contractors to respond to its health-care proposal, he said.

San Francisco enacted a similar law, the Healthy Airport Ordinance, last November. Airlines for America, a trade group that includes the six largest U.S. airlines, FedEx, and UPS filed a lawsuit in federal court March 31 challenging it as “prohibitively expensive”—a move Hill calls “outrageous” given that airlines have received $65 billion in federal aid during the pandemic.

“They move at the table, or nothing’s going to move at the airports,” he says. “We want the airlines to recover, but workers have to recover too. We can’t go back to the way things were before.”

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