The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Strike is back on for U.S. airport workers seeking higher pay, job protections

New York and Washington stepped up security in the wake of the attacks in Brussels on March 22, deploying counter-terrorism reinforcements and the National Guard to airports and stations, officials said. Airport workers also cancelled a labor strike planned last week.  ( Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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The 24-hour strike workers had planned at several major U.S. airports last week, then postponed after the Brussels terrorist attacks, is back on.

Service workers, including cleaners, security officers and baggage handlers, plan to walk off their jobs Wednesday night, in a demand for better wages and union rights.

In the wake of the attack at the Brussels airport, workers are also calling for better emergency preparedness, the Service Employees International Union said.

“We need critical training to protect ourselves, other workers and our passengers when emergencies happen,” Sadaf Subijano, a security officer at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport said. She said the Brussels attacks “should be a wake-up call for everybody.”

The strike is planned at eight airports including Washington’s Reagan National, Chicago’s O’Hare, New Jersey’s Newark Liberty, and New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports.  This will be the first time workers at National airport have struck, though in recent months, they have joined in protests, vigils and rallies as part of the Airport Workers United campaign for a $15 an-hour minimum wage and union rights.

Airport officials across the country have said they don’t expect the strike to have a significant impact on travelers or daily airport operations. Airlines often have backup plans to avert disruptions. The number of workers participating– as many as 2,000 nationwide– isn’t big enough to cause significant problems, they say.

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 say is a lack of adequate training for security officers. At Newark, cabin cleaners complain they are not given enough time to complete routine airplane checks and are sometimes forced to conduct them at night with the lights off.

SEIU officials say airports should invest in the workforce and make emergency response training available to all workers operating in restricted airport areas, many of whom are tasked with providing security services such as guarding doors and monitoring security cameras.

Travelers passing through the airports Wednesday night and Thursday are likely to see workers and their supporters rallying, passing out flyers and holding signs that read, “Poverty wages don’t fly.”

The employees work for contractors that serve all the major airlines. Although previous demonstrations have had minimal effect on travelers, SEIU organizers say their protests have led to some changes, including wage increases in major hubs such as Los Angeles, New York and Fort Lauderdale.