The workers are contract employees with airline contractors such as Prospect Airport Services, Scrub Inc., and AirServ who have been trying to organize with the SEIU’s help. They are also part of a broader nationwide campaign to lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“The airport workers are leading the way,” Marc Goumbri, an SEIU spokesman, said Monday. He said workers at 19 other airports around the country, including Reagan National Airport, will also hold demonstrations in support of the $15 minimum wage and the striking workers. The strike by O’Hare workers also is intended to coincide with a national day of action by fast food employees, daycare attendants and others in more than 300 locations who are also hoping to drive up the minimum wage, Goumbri said.
The union argues that the support staff at O’Hare and other airports deserve better wages at a time when the number of people flying has hit records and the carriers have been fattened by profits. A survey of non-unionized workers at the nation’s busiest 30 airports found that a majority make less than $12 an hour and have annual household incomes of less than $25,000, SEIU says. Some are paid as little as $2.10 an hour plus whatever tips they can get from passengers.
Airlines for America (A4A), an organization that advocates on behalf of the airlines, took no position on the workers’ attempts to form a union.
But the industry — which engages hundreds of contractors to handle aircraft maintenance, baggage, booking, fuel, catering, internet service, advertising and other aspects of the business — believes the best way to address wages is at the state or national level so that wage scales are uniform, A4A spokesman Vaughn Jennings said in an email. He also noted that both employees and customers have benefited from the booming airline business: wages were about 38 percent higher than other private sectors in 2015. Wages also rose 29 percent — or more than double 13 percent in other private sectors — from 2010 to 2015. And the industry is still hiring.
It’s not clear how much of an impact the walkout might have on travelers at O’Hare, which is among the busiest airports in the United States. Neither A4A nor the Chicago Department of Aviation anticipate any disruption in service. But union officials said that that was never the workers’ aim.
“It’s always been clear that disrupting travel has never been the goal,” Goumbri said. “They do care about passengers getting to their destination.”
[Disclosure: as co-chair of the Washington Baltimore News Guild’s bargaining unit at The Washington Post, I’m a member of the Communication Workers of America.]
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