January 15, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – This year, if the Port Authority does not accede to calls for "dignity and fairness," Martin Luther King Day will be about a lot more than flowery speeches and empty platitudes. That’s because workers at the city’s major airports who presently do not get Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a paid holiday, are vowing to take a page out of the slain Civil Rights icon’s book, and engage in coordinated acts of civil disobedience on Monday – even if it means getting arrested.
In a letter sent to the Port Authority, 32BJ SEIU, along with allies in government and the clergy said, “If the agency does not grant workers MLK Day as a paid holiday in order to demonstrate its sincere efforts to fundamentally improve conditions at the airports, we will, in the great and noble tradition of Dr. King, engage in civil disobedience with the workers on January 20, 2014.”
In addition to denying workers the holiday, labor supporters say that employees working at airports run by Port Authority are barely scraping by – even though company profits at the high-flying transportation hubs are at record levels, and the number of passengers is 1.5 million more than in was in 2007.
“We don’t get raises, we have no benefits – it’s ridiculous,” Harish Singh, a security officer at JFK’s Terminal 7, told LaborPress on Wednesday during a demonstration outside Port Authority offices on Park Avenue South.
Part of Singh’s many responsibilities includes checking aircrafts for suspicious packages, but the Queens resident still only earns a minimum wage salary after four years on the job.
“I can’t live on $8 an hour,” Signh said. “I have a family.”
New York City Councilman Corey Johnson (D – 3rd Council District), called it “stomach churning” that airport workers like Signh who put in long hours, often have to resort to applying for food stamps, Section 8 housing and Medicaid in order to make ends meet. And that it might be time for a major shake up at the Port Authority.
“Last week, the governor in his State of the State called for New York State taking over control of both La Guardia and JFK airports – away from the Port Authority,” the councilman said. “If that is going to get this done more quickly, I say let’s do it. But I only say let’s do it, if we think it’s going to make it happen.”
When asked if he was willing to be arrested on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Michael Carey, another airport security worker from Brooklyn, said that he is “willing to go through the whole process in order to be better off.”
“We are trying to take a stand on that day because of the significance Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for,” Carey said.
King, of course, was assassinated in April, 1968, while aiding striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
“We are here to say that on January 20, if the Port Authority does not act, many of us standing here will be engaging in civil disobedience at the airports, so that we can be able to make a stand on behalf of these workers,” said Camille Rivera, former deputy political director of 32BJ SEIU and executive director of UnitedNY. “And yes, we’re willing to get arrested.”
Last month, airport workers submitted a petition with 2,000 names on it to the Port Authority demanding that Martin Luther King Jr. Day be made a paid holiday.
The Port Authority has yet to comment.
“The Port Authority has the power to intervene and eliminate this double standard which hurts those who can least afford it,” 32BJ President Hector Figueroa said.
An upset State Senator Jose Peralta (D, WF 13th Senatorial District) said it is long past time for the Port Authority to finally address airport workers’ grievances.
“One year ago, we stood in the cold asking for fairness,” the state senator said. “And they’re still talking. Enough of the talk. Let’s walk the walk. Let’s make sure the Port Authority does what they have to do.”