Workers, and their supporters, say they hope the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees the two airports, will support their plight and require all contractors doing business at the airports to pay their employees $15 an hour.
“We deserve to be paid better for the work that we do,” said Marvin Lynch, a baggage service agent at Dulles. “The pay should fit the job. We are getting poverty wages in return for our hard work. Today we say enough is enough.”
The airports authority reported no flight or service disruptions Wednesday morning. MWAA spokesman Rob Yingling said travelers should not expect impacts on their plans.
“So far there has been no adverse impact on airport passengers or flights,” he said. “We expect normal airport operations during the peaceful protest.”
The strike, organized by the Service Employees International Union, is part of a national push for better salaries at the country’s airports and in the fast-food industry. Union leaders say some workers at Washington airports earn as little as $6.15 an hour, plus tips. Some workers say they have to work two or three jobs to support their families.
On Wednesday, at a short rally outside the terminal at National, about two dozen workers picketed along with supporters wearing purple hats with the Fight for $15 logo and a slogan that says “Poverty wages don’t fly.”
“We work, we sweat, put 15 on our check,” they chanted before marching to the airport authority’s meeting, where they were welcomed by security and staff. Workers planned another picket at 4:30 p.m. at Dulles.
The workers have been waiting on the authority’s board of directors to vote to include the contract workers in its living-wage policy. The policy applies to airport contracts but not to companies that contract directly with individual airlines. More than 2,000 workers at National and as many as 4,200 at Dulles work for such companies.
There is no wage policy item on the meeting agenda Wednesday, but Yingling said the board has previously received the group’s proposal and listened to their concerns.
Those participating in the strike work for Huntleigh USA, a Texas-based company that contracts with the airlines and employs about 400 workers at the two airports. Organizers said they expected most of the 400 workers to participate in the walkout.
In a statement, Huntleigh said the company continuously evaluates issues related worker’s terms and conditions of employment.
“Huntleigh 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 statement said.
A 2013 report by the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley found that between 2002 and 2012, more than a third of workers doing cleaning and baggage-handling jobs lived in or near poverty. During that same time frame, the outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled, from 25 percent to 84 percent, with the average hourly wage declining 45 percent, from more than $19 an hour to $10.60, the report found.
Workers in other cities, including Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Newark, have been protesting the lower wages. Last month, thousands at airports across the country joined fast food employees and Uber drivers in a day of action, staging rallies and protests to bring attention to their conditions.
In Washington, workers have participated in rallies, vigils and sleepovers at the airport in the past year. Wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, and cabin cleaners for two contractors at National Airport staged their first-ever walkout in March. This is the first time that contract workers at Dulles have agreed to strike.
“We work very hard to ensure that travelers have a safe and clean airport, but we are ready to go on strike to ensure we can provide for our families,” said Aynalem Lale, a wheelchair dispatcher at Dulles. “If I made $15 an hour, I wouldn’t have to work two jobs and would not have to sleep at the airport between jobs.”
Jaime Contreras, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ said last week after the workers voted to authorize the walkout that “they are fed up with making poverty wages and these employers are not listening to them.”
This post has been updated.