The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority managed to stay mostly out of the fray as workers at Reagan National and Dulles International airports led protests throughout the year for better pay and benefits.
But some members of the authority’s governing body may be seeking to take a stronger hand in helping workers in the new year.
Officials with knowledge of MWAA’s discussions say board members are considering supporting some type of wage increase.
MWAA has a living-wage policy that applies to airport contracts but not to companies that contract directly with individual airlines. Many of the workers protesting are employed by those companies, and they are paid as little as $6 an hour. They are seeking a minimum of $15 an hour.
“It is in everyone’s interest that we have a stable workforce,” said J. Walter Tejada, who was appointed to the board by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in May. “We don’t want people coming and going and productivity going down.”
But a decision to back a wage increase, even a modest one, would have significant implications for the board. Unlike other major airports run by single jurisdictions, MWAA’s 17-member board is made up of representatives from Virginia, the District, Maryland and the federal government. And their interests do not always align.
For example, Virginia lawmakers committed $50 million to the authority this year — and $25 million for 2017 and 2018 — to reduce airline operating costs and help MWAA strengthen Dulles’s competitive position.
That may be why many board members have been circumspect in their discussions about wage increases.
MWAA has said it is analyzing the “complicated issues” relating to the establishment of a minimum wage, taking the time to listen to the workers and the unions as well as the concessionaires and the airlines.
“We have to look at this very, very carefully, taking everybody’s perspective into consideration,” Chairman William Shaw McDermott said.
Low-wage workers began organizing in spring 2015 to push for higher pay. Since then, they have intensified their demonstrations and joined the nationwide Fight for $15 campaign, which has led to wage increases in other cities and other airports.
About 15 workers staged a sleep-in at National Airport in November to draw attention to the short windows some of them have to go home between shifts, leading them to sleep at the airport. On Nov. 29, a procession of about 300 workers and supporters delivered a petition with 1,000 signatures to the MWAA offices at National pressing their case for better wages. And, on Dec. 14, about 300 workers walked off their jobs in protest.
So far, none of the actions has disrupted flight operations, according to airport and airline officials. And, they say, they don't expect any disruptions in the future. But the workers’ pursuit hasn’t been ignored, either.
Officials familiar with MWAA’s discussions say they expect some action on the wage issue by spring.
“Our hope is that this is not going to extend past early next year. And if it does, that means there is going to be people taking to the streets at the airport,” said Jaime Contreras, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which has been organizing the workers. “We are not going to stand idle and just wait and wait and wait.”
McDermott said he hoped 2017 would bring “a solid understanding and conclusion of what we think the right thing to do is.”
“I don’t want to predict exactly when, because it is more complicated than I can explain,” he added.
On a recent afternoon, more than two dozen workers lined up to enter the boardroom at MWAA’s offices. They sat silently and waited nearly an hour for board members to arrive. Then they held still through a 13-item agenda, a farewell video for an airport executive and welcome remarks to three new members.
There was no mention of the workers who had taken over half the room for the two-hour meeting, although their purple hats with the “Fight for $15” logo drew some glances.
But the workers said they didn’t need to disrupt the proceedings, said Marvin Clinch, a baggage handler who skipped work that morning to participate in the one-day strike. They wanted to send a message.
“It was important for them to at least see us and know that we are serious and that our concerns are important,” he said.
Another group of laborers, made up mostly of Ethiopian immigrants, gathered in the hallway. They had staged a protest outside National’s Terminal C earlier as part of their first strike, demanding better pay and benefits and the right to unionize. Most had come from Dulles and were joined by fellow workers at National.
It was a sign of how the movement had grown — from a few laborers lamenting their wages to several hundreds willing to skip work to make their voices heard.
Many were wheelchair attendants and baggage handlers working for Huntleigh USA, a Texas-based company that workers specifically targeted that day. Workers said that Huntleigh, which contracts directly with the airlines, had cut their pay, citing a lack of productivity.
“The job is physically demanding. We do a lot of heavy lifting,” said Clinch, who hauls international-bound Avianca bags — which weigh up to 100 pounds — from the baggage counter to the security screeners at Dulles. He and other workers said the hourly wages for baggage handlers went from $9.50 to $9. For wheelchair attendants, who are considered tipped employees, they fell from $7.25 to $6.15.
“It was a slap in the face,” Clinch said.
Huntleigh did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations. But in a Dec. 14 statement, Huntleigh said it is “in full compliance with regulatory mandates regarding pay and benefits and will continue to strive for the best service possible for our clients and the traveling public.”
The airline industry and its contracting companies have emphasized that they abide by federal and state labor laws and say that the government should dictate wage minimums, not airport governing bodies. In Virginia, home to National and Dulles airports, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour — the same as the federal minimum, which was last changed in 2009. The District's minimum, now $11.50, is scheduled to rise to $15 in four years. Maryland’s minimum is $8.75 and is expected to increase to $10.10 in 2018.
“We continue to believe that the appropriate way to address minimum wages is at the statewide or national level, so that minimum-wage standards apply to all workers and employers equally, regardless of industry sector or geographic location,” said Kathy Grannis Allen, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America.
Industry officials also say the airlines can’t get involved in their contractors’ labor negotiations. That has workers waiting on the MWAA.
There are more than 2,000 workers at National and as many as 4,200 at Dulles who work for companies that contract with the individual airlines.
An MWAA contract for custodial services sets an hourly wage of $14.27, according to the airports authority. Contract workers excluded from that policy say they want parity — and more.
Contreras said it’s not as if $15 an hour would bring luxury to the workers. “It is nowhere near what people need to live in this area,” he said. “But it puts them on a path to improve their standard of living.
“Our hope is that MWAA is going to act soon.”