Forty-six years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., while in the city supporting striking sanitation workers who faced deplorable conditions and struggled to get by on meager wages. Were King alive today, there’s no doubt that his outspoken devotion to the labor movement and economic justice would inspire him to support another group of ill-treated laborers: the New York region’s airport service workers.
Like the laborers King worked hard to defend, airport workers face difficult working conditions for low compensation that does not allow them to sustain themselves or their families. In the spirit of King’s lifetime of advocacy for working families, these workers have come together to demand the respect and fair treatment they deserve. That’s why 46 years to the day that King’s life was stolen, clergy and community and elected leaders joined with airport workers to commemorate King’s life and quest for economic justice by demanding the same for airport workers today.
New York’s regional airports–John F. Kennedy, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia–have become mires of poverty–trapping workers in low-wage positions with opportunity and even self-sufficiency out of reach.
It wasn’t always this way; there was a time when airlines hired most of their employees directly and offered them decent compensation including benefits. But now, a low-bid, race-to-the-bottom contracting system has seen passenger services subcontracted out to private firms. These contractors’ employees earn far less than workers doing similar jobs directly employed by the airlines or the Port Authority. This blatant double standard hurts those who can least afford it–our families, our communities and our New York-New Jersey metropolitan areas.
For more than a year, local airport workers have petitioned their employers, held rallies and taken to the streets to demand better working standards but conditions have not improved.
Finally, on Jan. 20–Martin Luther King Jr. Day–nearly 1,000 workers, elected officials, clergy, community supporters, 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa and other 32BJ officials and members protested on the 94th Street bridge that leads to LaGuardia Airport. In the time-honored tradition of civil disobedience, more than 30 people were arrested, including Rep. Charles Rangel, Figueroa, local elected officials, workers and clergy members.
In response, the Port Authority called on the four major airlines–American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue and United Airlines–and their contractors to implement reforms including dollar an hour raises, benefits and a paid holiday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Delta was the first to agree and its contracted workers received the dollar raise on March 1 at Kennedy Airport. American Airlines agreed to the Port Authority’s plan soon after, though its workers have yet to receive the dollar raise.
But that’s where the progress ends.
JetBlue balked at the plan, and United, the region’s dominant carrier with 70 percent of the passenger traffic at Newark Airport, never even bothered to respond. Meanwhile, airport workers employed by their contractors still make poverty wages and have no affordable health benefits, paid holidays or paid sick days.
It is clear that stronger steps are needed. These workers have no voice in their workplaces and their right to join a union of their choosing is routinely and viciously violated. It’s high time these workers had their choice of union to represent them in negotiations with their employers.
Forty-six years after King’s death, New York area airports’ passenger service workers make less in real wages than those of the sanitation workers he championed. The airlines and their contractors must come up with a plan to improve these workers’ wages and benefits and the workers themselves must have their choice of union respected. Anything less would be an affront to King’s legacy.
The Rev. Que English is senior pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Church.