Lost amid the commemoration of a civil rights icon was his advocacy for labor rights. Some airport workers reminded the world of that this week.
In the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., airport workers, union leaders from 32BJ, elected officials and clergy led a “call for justice” at Newark Airport Monday.
“In 1964, Dr. King said ‘It is a crime for people who live in this rich nation to receive starvation wages,’” said the Rev. Ronald Tuff, pastor of First Bethel Baptist Church, in a statement. “If he were alive today, Dr. King would stand with airport workers as they strive toward a future that includes jobs with dignity and respect, just as he stood with striking Memphis sanitation workers at the end of his life.”
“After years of broken promises, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has allowed this two-tiered wage scale at our region’s airports,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ, the largest property services union in the country. “Without parity, Newark Airport workers are relegated as second-class citizens. We can’t allow this injustice to continue. That’s why today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are reaffirming our commitment to fight for a $15 minimum wage and meaningful benefits so that subcontracted Newark Airport workers can live with dignity and provide for their families.”
In December, 8,000 workers at LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark airports, with the assistance of 32BJ SEIU, agreed to their first ever union contract. The tentative agreement (made with 11 airline subcontractors) includes seniority rules, scheduling protocols, disciplinary procedures and health and safety guidelines. Under the contract, New York City-area airport workers will get their first raise toward a $15 minimum wage in January. This agreement marks them as one of the first groups of employees in the United States to win both a $15 hourly wage and the ability to organize.
But while New York’s airport workers are on their way to a $15 minimum wage, Newark Airport’s subcontracted employees still have salaries of $10.10 an hour. They do not want to be left out in the cold.
“I work just as hard as New York airport workers, but I make less money—that’s shameful and demoralizing,” said Nicolas Molina, a worker for contractor PrimeFlight Aviation Services who cleans United Airlines planes, in a statement. “But airport workers are rising together and calling for change. And we won’t stop fighting until we get what we deserve, a living wage, real benefits and respect.”
The subcontracted workers at Newark Airport work as baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants and cabin cleaners. Their $10.10 an hour salary stretches out to approximately $22,000 annually, which is less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. This low wage, according to workers and their advocates, leads to workers relying on government assistance programs to supplement their income.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said he’ll continue to support the workers during their ongoing fight for a $15 minimum wage.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against starvation wages in the 1960s,” said Baraka in a statement. “Today, this problem persists at Newark Airport where workers here, like many other hard-working citizens of our city, make so little they struggle to afford basic needs like food and rent. The Port Authority allowed this two-tiered wage scale at our airports and it’s hurting workers and their families. And it devalues their hard work and commitment to keep Newark Airport safe, clean and profitable.”