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Airport workers hope to get Thanksgiving travelers’ attention

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport workers, some of whom are cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, ramp workers, wheelchair attendants, janitors, and other passenger service workers employed by two airline service contractors, Eulen America and AirServ, picket together on November 19, 2015 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The striking workers were part of a nationwide airport workers strike calling attention to what they say are the companies unfair labor practices, unaffordable benefits and low-wages. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year, workers at 15 major U.S. airports are planning a day of fasting, vigils and rallies, aiming to galvanize the traveling public’s support for their fight for better wages.

The workers— a mix of cleaners, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants and security officers— will wear buttons that say “Ask Me Why I’m Fasting” and pass out petitions and flyers illustrating their campaign for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, the Service Employees International Union said.

Besides pushing for $15 minimum hourly wages, the workers want health care, sick leave, retirement benefits and job protections. They’re also protesting threats against their efforts to unionize.

Last week, as many as 2,000 workers went on strike at seven major hubs, including New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. The walkout didn’t disrupt air travel, but workers and union leaders say they are planning to step up their efforts as the busy holiday season takes off.  Their goal is to put pressure on airports, airlines and, most importantly, the contractors that hire the workers.

“These used to be good jobs 20 years ago, but with subcontracting the jobs have really gone down,”  said Valarie Long, executive vice president of SEIU International. “Some people are making as little as $7.25 an hour, some less because they are considered tipped employees. It is clear that something needs to change and the workers are going to use this holiday season to make sure that the public knows this.”

[Airport workers at 7 U.S. hubs to strike Wednesday night]

The 24-hour fast, along with vigils and rallies, are being organized at San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Chicago O’Hare, Cleveland, Columbus, Minneapolis, Denver, Boston, New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and Reagan National airports.

At National, at least 300 workers pledged to participate in the fast from noon Tuesday to noon Wednesday, workers and SEIU leaders said.

“I believe it’s the right thing to do,” said Alex Aram, 24, a fulltime baggage handler at National making $8.50 an hour through the facility service and management company Eulen America. “We all come from the same struggle, we all have the same thing in common and want it to get better.”

The national campaign mirrors that of fast-food restaurant workers who have been organizing in cities across the U.S. in their “Fight for $15” campaign. The airport workers have gained steam, expanding from just a handful of airports three years ago to 15 major hubs, where workers have held strikes and protests, and in the process have won some concessions.

In Philadelphia, city leaders in June forced airline contractors to raise wages to $12 an hour. In Seattle, a state court ruled in August that a $15-an-hour minimum wage law applies to airport workers. And in South Florida, Broward County officials last month voted to extend a living-wage ordinance to contract airline workers, upping salaries by more than $3 an hour for some workers.

[Washington-area airport workers join fight for $15-an-hour minimum wage]

Members of the clergy and high profile politicians including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have also pledged support.

“Airport jobs should be good jobs,” Clinton said in a letter last month. “Too many workers are living on the brink, struggling to make ends meet. We need you out there saying loudly and clearly—no one who works an honest job in America should have to live in poverty.”

In Washington, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) was one of several members of Congress who last week spoke in solidarity with the workers strike outside the Capitol. Connolly bashed the workers’ salaries and conditions.

“Airports should be economic drivers, not sweatshops,” he said. “These men and women shouldn’t have to juggle multiple jobs and still struggle to pay the bills or support their families.”

The low-wage airport workers are employed by private contractors that are free to pay the minimum wage. Some workers, including wheelchair attendants are paid $3.77 an hour because they are considered to be tipped employees, workers said. In some markets, there is a push to be get the workers included under living-wage ordinances that cover employees working directly for the airports.

At National, where some workers began to organize over the summer, they are working to garner support from the travelers as well as urging more workers to join the effort. Some say they plan walkouts, rallies, and protests that could cause disruptions if no concessions are made.  This week, however, they say they will focus on fasting and prayer to bring awareness of the labor struggle during one of the year’s busiest travel days. AAA Travel estimates that nearly 47 million Americans will travel this Thanksgiving and 3.6 million of them will fly.  Tuesday is traditionally the busiest travel day before the holiday.

“A lot of people think that we make a lot of money because we work at the airport. But they don’t know that we work for contractors who don’t pay their employees that much money,” said Tranden Baccus, 33, an Alexandria, Va. resident who makes $8.25 an hour as a baggage handler.  “There’s no benefits, not sick leave, no paid vacation. Nothing.”