In his native Ethiopia, Bert Bayou was a middle-class professional with a United Nations job. But like tens of thousands of his countrymen, he left his war-torn homeland to start over in the United States. Arriving in Washington in 2001, he used the immigrant grapevine to find low-wage jobs in parking garages and coffee shops where other Ethiopians worked.
Today Bayou, 38, is a labor union official in the District and the veteran of a successful campaign to improve job conditions for garage workers. Now, his union is hoping to organize another niche of Ethiopian employment: the restaurants and newsstands at Reagan National and Dulles International airports.
More than 1,500 people sell snacks and magazines, wait on tables and clean floors at dozens of terminal outlets such as Starbucks and Hudson News, which are under contract at both airports with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Between 60 and 75 percent of those workers are from Ethiopia, according to union officials.
The environment is bright and modern, with both airports having recently upgraded retail services. Yet many workers earn about $10 per hour even after years on the job — less than for similar jobs at other major U.S. airports, union leaders say. Workers say their shifts change unpredictably, some companies offer no health benefits and they can be penalized for taking vacations.
“Ethiopians are the predominant ethnic group working at these airports, so these jobs have an outsize impact on our community,” Bayou said last week. “Latinos are the predominant group among janitors, and they have been able to organize and win rights, but our community is being left behind.”
Bayou’s union, a national AFL-CIO affiliate called Unite Here, is taking inspiration from the Service Employees International Union, whose “Justice for Janitors” campaign involved thousands of Central American office cleaners in the Washington area in the 1990s. The group held noisy pickets outside downtown buildings for months.
On April 12, Unite Here staged a brief march by about 50 workers through one terminal at National. Instead of negotiating with more than 20 companies that own concessions at the airports, union leaders want the airports authority to set an overall policy on wages and conditions.
“It would be best if the airport authority, which is a public body, would intervene to make sure immigrant workers in the terminal concessions are treated fairly,” said Adam Yalowitz, an official with the union, which has not decided what further actions to take.
Two spokesmen for the airport board, Kim Dibbs and Chris Paolino, said in separate interviews that they had no information about the activities or demands of the union.
Efforts Friday to reach officials at a half-dozen companies that own concessions at National and Dulles were unsuccessful. One owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that concession workers make an average of $10 an hour but said the wages are higher than those who work at non-airport outlets.
The Ethiopian-focused campaign comes on top of other recent efforts to organize a variety of low-wage airport workers, such as baggage handlers and cleaners. The SEIU, which represents nearly 20,000 contract workers at 30 U.S. airports, held a one-day strike in March at several major airports including National, demanding higher pay, better conditions and the right to unionize.
There has also been a two-year campaign by Unite Here to organize workers at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which has included strikes, proposals for legislation in the Maryland General Assembly, and complaints of racial discrimination in wage rates. Many concession workers at BWI are African American. Unite Here represents 35,000 airport workers across the country.
In Washington, the fledgling union campaign signals a growing activism within the region’s large Ethiopian community, best known for its lively restaurants in the District’s Adams Morgan and Shaw neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees and immigrants live in the area, a wave that began during civil conflict in the 1980s and has continued since.
The airport workers are encouraged by other Ethiopians who work in parking garages, and they said their situation improved after the successful unionization drive. They are also being supported by several Roman Catholic churches and a nonprofit, immigrant-run group in Silver Spring called Dream Ethiopia.
Last week, a dozen airport workers met with Bayou and other union officials at the D.C. restaurant Lalibela. They munched on platters of Ethiopian stew with spongy injera bread, and a woman in a gauzy scarf shook a steaming pan of aromatic coffee beans near each participant in a ceremonial gesture.
The workers didn’t make specific plans that day, but they shared stories of toiling long, unpredictable hours for low pay, taking on multiple jobs to make the rent and send money to their families in Ethiopia, and sometimes being treated callously by managers.
Kasahun Belahu, a man in his 60s, works at three airport outlets for $9.50 an hour and can barely make ends meet. Often, he said, his hours are suddenly cut from 40 to 30 a week. “They can take away your [ID] badge for any reason. That’s why we have to have the courage to speak up,” he said.
Sabela Dalelegn, 35, the woman whirling around the table with the pan of coffee beans, sat down to recount her struggles. She said she once asked for a week off without pay after five years — and was fired as soon as she came back.
“I was so desperate,” she said. “I didn’t have money to pay the rent or feed my baby.” Dalelegn pleaded for her job back, and said the manager told her to reapply at the starting wage of $8 per hour. “We have no equality, no respect. We need a union,” she said.
In a gleaming concourse at National one morning last week, piped music played softly. One cashier at a coffee shop sat behind her register, waiting for the first lunch customers. She said she knew about the union drive but was not involved in it.
“I’m tired,” she said with a sigh. “I have two children, I have been working here nine years, ever since I came to this county, and my pay is still 10 dollars. There was another shop that paid eleven, but I had to get there by 4 a.m,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s not fair. It’s not enough.”