Workers at Reagan National Airport will join those at some of the country’s busiest hubs for a 24-hour strike beginning Tuesday night over what they say are low wages and retaliation for union organizing, labor leaders said Monday.
More than 2,000 workers, including cleaners, security officers and baggage handlers plan to strike at National, Chicago’s O’Hare, New Jersey’s Newark Liberty, and New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, among others, the Service Employees International Union said.
Airport officials across the country said they don’t expect the strike to have significant effect on travelers or daily airport operations, even though the walkout coincides with busy spring break and Easter holiday travel. They said airlines often have backup plans to avert disruptions.
But organizers and workers promise to be out in force, picketing and rallying for an hourly minimum wage of $15 for the lowest-paid airport workers, who they said are forced to work two or three jobs to support their families.
“Until we achieve our goal, we have to fight,” said Legesse Woldearegay, 70, who makes $8 an hour as a customer service agent for Eulen America, a Miami-based Delta and American airlines contractor. Woldearegay said he works a second shift as a security officer at National to make ends meet.
“The goal is to get the $15 pay and the respect we deserve,” said Woldearegay, who lives in Woodbridge, Va. “We’ll never give up.”
The employees, who hold critical service jobs — keeping terminals and plane cabins clean, moving bags and transporting people with disabilities — work for contractors that serve all the major airlines. Some are earning the minimum wage and others, considered tip employees, have hourly wages as low as $6.75, union leaders said.
This will be the first time Washington workers have struck, although in the past six months they have joined in protests and rallies as part of the national effort for better wages. The campaign mirrors that of fast-food restaurant workers, who have been organizing in cities across the United States in the “Fight for $15.”
SEIU leaders said the workers’ goal is not to disrupt the travel of the thousands of air passengers on Wednesday, but to draw attention to their working conditions. In addition to better pay, the workers also want paid sick leave and vacation. And in some markets, including Chicago, they are drawing attention to what they said is a lack of adequate training for security officers.
The workers also want the right to unionize without fear of retaliation. The SEIU has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging its members have faced intimidation and retaliation — including surveillance — from their employers, over their organizing activities.
Previous demonstrations at major airports have had minimal effect on travelers.
“The airlines generally know when these things are going to happen, so they basically have all hands on deck and get some of the managers to go out and do the front lines and do some of the things that they have to do, whether it is pushing wheelchairs or working the ticket counters,” said Gregory Meyer, a spokesman a Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. “It’s not like the planes stop flying or the luggage quits moving. The airlines are able to continue to operate and the concessionaires are able to continue to operate business as usual.”
Even if those passing through the airports don’t see reduced services, the workers said they expect travelers to see them rallying. They also think their actions will inspire those who aren’t participating to join in.
“It always surprises me when the aviation industry says, ‘Oh, this hasn’t had any effect,’ ” said Valarie Long, executive vice president of SEIU International, noting that the campaign has expanded from just a handful of airports four years ago to about 20. “When workers see their co-workers take action, by protesting and rallying, it emboldens them to also stand up and fight.”
There have been some victories, she said. In Seattle, a state court ruled in August that a $15-an-hour minimum wage law applies to airport workers. In South Florida, Broward County officials voted in October to extend a living-wage ordinance to contract airline workers, upping salaries by more than $3 an hour for some. Members of the clergy, high-profile politicians, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and such celebrities as actor Danny Glover and author Alice Walker have pledged support. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka last month called on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to approve the $15 minimum wage for its contract workers.
On Wednesday, passengers are likely to see workers and their supporters picketing, passing out flyers and holding signs that read, “Poverty wages don’t fly.” In Los Angeles, workers will join in a major rally in support, although the airport is not participating in the strike.
Airports across the United States are said to be in dialogue with airlines about the workers’ concerns, but some officials have said they can’t do much for workers who are not airport employees. In the Washington region, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has a living-wage policy that applies to airport contracts, but it doesn’t apply to companies that contract with individual airlines.
There are more than 2,000 workers at National who don’t benefit from that living-wage policy, and as many as 4,200 at Dulles International Airport. Although Dulles Airport workers have been organizing in recent months, they are not participating in the strike.
As many as 200 workers could participate in the strike at National, starting Tuesday at 10 p.m. Several demonstrations are planned for Wednesday.
Just six months after they kicked off their campaigns with a pray-in during Pope Francis’s visit in September, the number of workers engaged has grown from about two dozen to more than 300, organizers said.
But organizing has had its challenges, some workers said. In a labor complaint filed this month against Eulen America, SEIU Local 32BJ alleged a worker was disciplined for participating in union activities and the company “threatened to retaliate against workers who participate in protected Section 7 activities.” (The section of the National Labor Relations Act that guarantees employees the right to form, join or assist labor organizations.)
Still, workers said they have seen some benefits in recent months, including training they had been demanding and a health-care insurance option.
Kimberly Gibbs, a spokeswoman for MWAA, said the authority does not expect any disruptions to travel at National, where about 850 flights take place on a given day.
“We are not expecting any impact on our operations,” she said. “But we will work with our airlines and their partners to maintain normal operations.”