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Port Authority workers want MLK Day off

Stephon Johnson | 1/2/2014, 1:45 p.m.

Hundreds of contracted area airport workers delivered a present to the headquarters of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Park Avenue South: a list of demands for better wages, benefits and paid sick days and holidays.

Workers descended on the headquarters on Thursday, Dec. 19 2013, with complaints of being paid poverty wages without affordable health benefits. They are demanding a gesture from the Port Authority that will show that the company is taking the workers’ suggestions seriously.

Contracted workers want the Port Authority to declare Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day (Jan. 20) a paid holiday.

Employees from John F. Kennedy (JFK) International, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia airports signed stacks of petitions, which were then presented to Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye by JFK Airport security officer Prince Jackson. Jackson, who works for the contractor AirServ, told the 300 workers and supporters gathered outside of the Port Authority building that picking MLK Day was symbolic because of what the late civil rights leader fought for.

“Many of us are children of pioneers who fought for civil rights, who changed America,” Jackson told the group. “They fought for a better life for us, not this—not poverty wages with little or no benefits.”

Foye shook hands with the workers delegated to deliver the petitions: Jackson; Sawpna Begum, a security officer with Aviation Safeguard at LaGuardia; Derick Swaby, a cabin cleaner with PrimeFlight at Newark Liberty International; and Shareeka Elliott, a terminal cleaner for contractor Airway Cleaners at JFK. Jackson spoke about King’s legacy and how it’s tied to the fight for workers’ rights.

“Dr. King died supporting [Memphis, Tenn.,] sanitation workers who were working under deplorable conditions and making what today would be $11.41 per hour,” said Jackson. “Forty-six years after Dr. King’s death, I earn $8 an hour. Most airport workers earn just $8 per hour. We also work under deplorable conditions. We are here to say our issues must be addressed, starting with Martin Luther King Day 2014,” Jackson said.

According to Jackson and other workers, poor working conditions have created a crisis at the local airports for them and for passengers. They said that as a result of low-bid subcontracting by airlines and terminal operators of cleaning workers, security and other entities at the local airports to contractors (PrimeFlight, AirServ, Aviation Safeguards and Airway Cleaners/Allstate Maintenance), they are paid poverty-level wages that are significantly less than workers employed by the Port Authority directly. They want an olive branch from the Port Authority, via MLK Day, to demonstrate a commitment to addressing worker concerns.

“We’ve been struggling for over a year to get these contractors to do the right thing, but we’ve gotten nowhere,” said Elliott in a statement. “The Port Authority has the power to make things better for all of us. Today, we’re asking the Port to act quickly and take a first step in the right direction and give us MLK Day as a paid holiday.”

Jackson asked Foye if he remembered the delegation of workers who came to him almost a year ago and gave him firsthand accounts of what they were dealing with when working for contractors at the Port Authority-run facilities. Foye told him that he did remember.

“Well, there’s been no progress,” Jackson reminded Foye. “Things are still pretty horrible at the airports.”