For most of us, the holidays that just passed were a time for taking a break and reconnecting with our families. But for the 12,000 low-wage subcontracted airport service workers in New York, the holiday season is the busiest part of the year. Instead of spending quality time with their families, they were working hard to make sure everyone else’s travels went according to plan.
In fact, airport workers get no paid holidays at all. That’s not right. Airport workers deserve a holiday, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20 is the perfect day for them to get one.
Martin Luther King Jr. is rightly remembered as one of the greatest civil rights leaders in American history, but people sometimes forget he was also an outspoken advocate of the labor movement. In a speech to the AFL-CIO in 1961, King said, “Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation, but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production.”
King’s last campaign was a fight for labor. The very day he was murdered, King was in Memphis, Tenn., rallying support for striking sanitation workers. To grant hardworking airport laborers a holiday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day would honor this legacy.
Like many working people, airport workers face difficult conditions on the job. Airlines and terminal operators at John F. Kennedy, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia airports subcontract to private companies who pay poverty wages. Many of these workers earn just $8 per hour—far less than workers employed directly by the airlines and the Port Authority.
The contractors’ employees also receive little to no benefits. Without fair wages and benefits, these workers struggle in an economy that has left far too many ordinary people behind as the nation recovers slowly from the Great Recession and the cost of living continues to rise.
Airport workers in the New York City area have fought hard for fair wages and benefits for over two years now. In fact, things came to such a head that these workers nearly went on strike last Christmas. The Port Authority averted the strike by promising progress—progress that has yet to occur.
If the Port Authority wants to show that it’s serious about treating airport workers fairly, it should implement a responsible contractor policy and direct airline contractors at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports to give their employees a paid holiday on Jan. 20 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And the workers who have to work that day to keep the airports running should get overtime for working a holiday.
Millions of Americans already enjoy paid time off to honor the life and work of King, including his work on behalf of the labor movement. The airport workers of the New York City area deserve no less.