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Workers put pressure on Port Authority over MLK Day

Stephon Johnson | 1/16/2014, 5 p.m.
Airport workers gave the Port Authority a warning, and now elected officials have fired verbal warning shots on the workers’ ...
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Airport workers gave the Port Authority a warning, and now elected officials have fired verbal warning shots on the workers’ behalf as well.

On Wednesday, a group of elected officials, contracted airport service workers and their supporters made their way to the headquarters of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to demand—once again—that their employees get Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday this Monday.

According to union officials, if the Port Authority doesn’t comply, the employees—who do everything from cabin cleaning to terminal security, baggage handling and wheelchair assistance—will “commit acts of civil disobedience” on the day in question.

“I am proud to stand here today in solidarity with contracted airport employees who make poverty wages with no health benefits, paid holidays and paid sick days,” said 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa. “It is outrageous that these workers struggle to get by on their wages in one of the most expensive cities in the country and often must rely on public assistance programs despite working full-time.”

Elected officials and clergy members present included New York state Sens. José Peralta and Gustavo Rivera; New York City Council Members Donovan Richards and Antonio Reynoso; pastor Que English of the Bronx Christian Fellowship; Morris Haynes of Bedford Central Presbyterian Church and Florence Johnson of UnitedNY.

A letter handed to Port Authority officials by elected officials and clergy read: “As elected public officials and clergy and community leaders who represent these workers and their communities, we put the Port Authority on notice today: If the agency does not grant the 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 Jan. 20, 2014.”

The letter, according to Assemblyman Keith Wright, was necessary.

“It is immoral that the very people who toil day after day to keep this city moving are themselves stuck in the trenches of low wages,” said Wright in a statement. “In the last year, we have made great strides in calling attention to the plight of low-wage workers all across this city, and I am proud to stand here today to lend my voice and my support to these hard-working men and women as they continue their fight for the employment standards they deserve.”

For over a year, contracted New York City-area airport service workers petitioned employers, airlines and terminal operators to improve working standards, claiming that the record profits and passengers being seen by local airports allow them to improve conditions. Back in December, workers presented Port Authority officials with a petition signed by more than 2,000 workers demanding MLK Day in 2014 be a paid holiday. On Wednesday, leaders said workers were willing to be arrested if their demands weren’t met.

The Rev. Michael Walrond of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem said that he and the workers were honoring King with their work. 

“Dr. King was assassinated while supporting Memphis sanitation workers working under deplorable conditions,” said Walrond in a statement. “It is an affront to his legacy that, 46 years after his death, New York-area airports workers labor under conditions worse than those of the sanitation workers he championed. People who work at our airports shouldn’t be living on poverty wages with no holidays.”