May 12 8:15 PM

United: NY area airport workers join union

Clara Bazan and her coworker Rafael Ciudad, cabin-cleaners employed at LaGuardia Airport by Delta contractor Air Serv, listen to a speech by Local 32BJ-SEIU President Héctor Figueroa.
E. Tammy Kim

At the three airports in greater New York City, and likewise across the U.S., the workers who keep things running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week are employed through a complex lattice of public agencies, airline carriers, private contractors and subcontractors. Some are direct employees of the government; others, direct employees of the airlines. But most work for large corporations holding private contracts.

State and federal labor laws generally guarantee living wages to public employees and contract workers, and the unionization of public-sector jobs has produced gains in benefits. So at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports, someone who cleans airplane cabins for a contractor to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey earns more than double the pay — $18 per hour compared to the $8 minimum wage — and far more benefits than a cleaning worker under a contractor to United Airlines.

Today, a majority of these privately contracted cabin-cleaners, wheelchair assistants and security personnel officially joined Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, a prerequisite in negotiating with management. They are among some 6,000 workers at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark employed by the 13 largest airline contractors. Three-quarters of airport service workers in the area are immigrants or people of color.

Clara Bazan, a cabin-cleaner for the Delta contractor Air Serv, joined a handful of Latino coworkers at this morning’s ceremonial card count at Riverside Church. It was a break from her usual routine: Five nights a week, she says goodbye to her 21-year-old son and takes the bus to LaGuardia Airport, in time for a 10 p.m.-to-6:45 a.m. shift. Her hourly pay of $9 per hour, she explained, is “too little for the family, for rent and food.”

Bazan never hesitated to show her support for the union. When approached by an organizer, “I say ‘I like it.’ I put the sign[ature], I told my friends,” she recalled. “We need the union for the job. We don’t have benefits — no sick days, personal days, paid holidays.”

“They do the same jobs as those employed by the Port Authority,” said 32BJ president Héctor J. Figueroa, but “for poor wages, without paid leave or health benefits, and in substandard conditions.” Now, he said, the contract workers are “invisible no more.”

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Any views expressed on The Scrutineer are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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