Virginia’s two Democratic gubernatorial candidates stopped by Reagan National Airport this week to meet workers trying to unionize and achieve a $15 minimum wage, a show of solidarity with both a key constituency and a national movement.
In separate appearances, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello told workers they will urge the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to require contractors to increase wages for baggage handlers, skycaps and other hourly workers.
But they are also calling for a statewide $15 minimum wage, a sign of how much strength the national “Fight for $15” has gained. Last year, New York became the first to approve gradual increases to $15 per hour for New York City, followed by the District of Columbia and California. Lawmakers in Maryland are debating legislation to bring that state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Virginia abides by the federal minimum wage of $7.25, which has not increased since 2009.
Northam broke a tie in the state Senate in 2014 to increase the minimum wage to $10.25, but the measure failed in the overwhelmingly Republican House of Delegates.
Perriello backed $15 shortly after announcing his campaign in early January. Northam joined and supported a $15-minimum-wage rally the next day.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is prevented from seeking a second term by the state constitution, has not publicly endorsed the $15 minimum wage, but he vetoed legislation last year that would have prohibited cities from setting their own wage floors.
At Reagan National Airport, named for a president who fired thousands of striking air-traffic controllers, several immigrant workers told the gubernatorial candidates how they struggle to raise their families and juggle multiple jobs after years of stagnant low pay. They said their pay ranged from $6.15 plus a tip to $9 an hour, depending on their jobs.
Workers at National and Dulles International Airport went on strike for a day in December to press their case for higher wages. More than 2,000 workers at National and as many as 4,200 at Dulles Airport work for contractors who provide services at the airports.
“I would challenge anyone out there to go try to support themselves and support their families on $7.25 an hour,” Northam said Wednesday after his meeting with workers. “It is impossible. You can’t do it.” He said he would push to raise the minimum wage as governor by campaigning to unseat Republican lawmakers opposed to it.
Perriello said he would explore ways to use executive action to raise wages through state contracting and grants while the legislative fight continues.
“We know we have a long way to go,” Perriello told a wheelchair handler during his Thursday visit, wearing a purple Fight for $15 scarf. “This is about the dignity of work, but it’s also about economic growth in our community.”
A spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which has been organizing airport workers for the past two years, says the group will shortly decide whether to endorse a candidate in the June 13 Democratic primary.