January 16, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
Queens, NY – 32BJ union leaders and elected officials championing the plight of low-wage airport workers once again marched on LaGuardia Airport this week, exactly one year after a group of them were arrested outside the travel hub on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
This year, the brief sit-in on the 94th Street bridge intended to pressure the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the airlines to start paying airport workers a living wage, did not result in any arrests, as union leaders feel confident that their efforts to secure a union contract for the metropolitan area’s 12,000 cabin cleaners, baggage handlers and security officers is about to pay off.
“I think we are getting closer to victory,” 32BJ Vice-President Shriley Aldebol told LaborPress. “Things are moving in the right direction.”
It’s been a year since Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foy, under increasing pressure, ordered airlines to raise worker salaries. However, the goal of winning a living wage for workers with benefits and the protection of a union contract, has yet to materialize.
Aldebol blames the airlines for the delay.
“The airlines have to pay the contractors, so the contractors can pay people a living wage – that’s where the delay is,” the vice-president said.
Walbert Santiago, a LaGuarida Airport security officer and father of six, said that his $10 an hour salary was actually knocked down to $9 an hour.
“I’m not happy,” Santiago said. “We need to fight. We need more money and we need more benefits.”
Although no arrests were made on the 94th Street bridge, demonstrators were kept away from arriving and departing passengers outside LaGuardia Airport's terminals.
Chantelle Walker, a 33-year-old Papa John’s employee and Fight For $15 activist supportive of airport workers, expressed her dissatisfaction with the year-long delay.
“I feel disgusted by it,” Walker told LaborPress. “[The airlines] need to come to the table.”
Airport workers, more than half of which experience significant hardships due to their poverty wages, are being subjected to more than just low wages. According to the New York City Comptroller’s Office, 90 percent of airport workers have reported wage violations this year alone.
“I’m tired of coming year after year to a rally to simply say that justice must be done,” NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer told demonstrators. “This is New York City circa 2015. And it is unbelievable to me that in the memory of Dr. Martin King, it is embarrassing to point to what is going on at our airports and think that we have made it when you think about economic justice.”
Assemblyman Jose Rivera [D-District 78] recalled the day some 35 years ago, when he took part in a livery cab driver demonstration at LaGuardia Airport that shut the place down.
“It breaks my heart to stand here a year later to hear your union leaders say that you have no contract, especially no day off on Martin Luther King Day,” the Bronx assemblyman said. “This is not acceptable. This is not the South. This New York. It is not acceptable.”
Union leaders and elected officials taking part in this week’s march on LaGuardia airport rallied around a banner invoking Dr. King declaring “A Dream Delayed.” Hector Figueroa, 32BJ president, however, remained upbeat and confident that airport workers – in fact all low-wage workers – will achieve their goals in 2015.
“It’s been a year,” Figueroa told demonstrators. “We don’t need any more delays. These workers make sure that airplanes leave on time without delay. They clean the cabins on their knees. They assist passengers that need wheelchair services. They make sure that travel is safe and comfortable. They make sure there are no delays – so we are asking [the airlines] for no more delays.”
Despite the ongoing challenges, Aldebol also expressed some optimism.
“These are hard fights,” Aldebol said. “We are in this for the long haul. We’re not the kind of union that gives up easily.”