At SeaTac International Airport just south of Seattle, Wash., "rampers" are the guys who heave baggage off planes and into trucks, in the baking sun and the freezing cold and rain, amid roar of jet engines, as passengers look on from their portholes. They're on a tight schedule, with not many people to handle the constant stream of traffic; throwing out your back or pulling a muscle requires days off work without pay. High turnover means new people are constantly being trained and making mistakes, heightening the anxiety of an already brutal job.
"See those little slaves running around out there?" says Kalolo Aukusitino, 21, who's worked the job for a little less than a year. "That's us."
It's just a ramper joke, he assured me in between drags on a cigarette while on a break on the Monday before Christmas, his eyes almost disappearing in a big smile. It's also why, for a few short months, Aukusitino felt like he'd won the lottery.
Tall and bear-like, his broad frame topped by a cloud of frizzy black hair, Aukusitino had left his native Hawaii after high school and landed a job at Menzies Aviation, one of the many companies that contract with SeaTac's airlines. In November, the voters of Sea-Tac had approved a ballot measure that would have raised his hourly wage from $10.88 -- $1.69 above the state's legal minimum -- to $15 an hour.
"Hell yes!" Aukusitino burst out, when asked if he was looking forward to the wage hike kicking in. "It means a car in about six months." Not to mention the ability to get a better-paying job somewhere else -- right now, he's working towards a degree in communications from a community college in nearby Tacoma, but wants to go to a four-year institution soon as well. Other workers spoke of further plans for the impending windfall: An apartment of their own, the ability to save for their kids' education, or just more time to spend with their families.
"Everybody who works here has responsibilities. Kids, and everything," says Ronnie Castillo, a ramp worker for Delta General Services who's got two 16-year-old twins, a 13 year old and a 6-year-old son, with another baby on the way. "That's why people almost live in the airport, don't sleep…"
"I don't even care for the 15. I'd take like a dollar, two dollars more," moans Ian Yocum, 21, who's also got two young kids. Taking a smoking break on the other side of the baggage claim area from Aukusitino, the guys dream aloud about buying better gear for working outside during the winter, or just paying bills without worrying if their paychecks will stretch to the next one, when they become fatter come January 1. And then, of course, there's the psychological effect.
"If they gave us $15, we would give more, push ourselves more," Castillo says. "We've been doing it for nine dollars an hour just to survive."
Now, though, those lottery winnings may never come through after all. On Friday, in response to a lawsuit backed by the airlines and the restaurant industry, the King County Superior Court ruled that the measure could only apply to the 1,600 people who work at hotels and car services outside the airport. That cuts out 4,700 people who work within the airport itself, which is technically a separate jurisdiction belonging to the Port of Seattle -- not subject to the voters' desires.
The $15 wage's proponents have promised to appeal the decision. But if it's upheld, it could mean the end of one of labor's most promising experiments: Raising wages, city by city, through the power of popular will.
Working at Sea-Tac wasn't always quite such a hard way to make a living. Just ask Ahmed Jama, 26, who says he started in fast food restaurants there since he was 16.
Like most workers at the airport, he holds multiple jobs, since most employers don't give anybody full-time work (to say nothing of health benefits -- Jama says he declared bankruptcy when he was 20 years old because of medical bills for a heart condition). So for about 30 hours a week, he's a dispatcher for the aviation services firm Huntleigh USA, which means he coordinates dozens of wheelchair pushers who arrive to meet disabled people at their gates. After 10 years, he still makes $10.05 an hour, and feels like he's going backwards -- he wants to go to school to become a medical technician, but working 60 hours a week doesn't leave time for class.
Here's what happened to make planning for the future impossible: The airlines have contracted out more and more of the jobs for which they used to pay people decent salaries with benefits. While Alaska Airlines employees overall make an average of $73,500 per year, those of the airlines' contractors make an estimated $20,176.
"That's the new hustle, subcontract everything. Cut the salary, cut the benefits, and CEO pay goes up," Jama says, taking a break from his spreadsheets and walkie-talkie in SeaTac's airy welcome lobby. "And you see all these companies come underbid each other. So companies that used to pay vacation pay, or parking, a new company will come in and say 'we don't pay anybody anything, give me the contract.' And they'll get the contract, and it's a steep decline in working conditions and morale. Each company is just out doing the bare minimum."
The subcontracting trend also presented unions with a tough challenge. Because of a quirk of federal labor law that pertains to the aviation industry, they have to organize contractors nationwide, rather than workplace by workplace. On top of that, many of the workers at SeaTac are either retirees or recent immigrants from places like Eritrea and Somalia, less able to put their jobs on the line for potential gains down the road.
So earlier this year, a coalition of community groups backed by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters decided to put it to voters in the city of 27,000 people, launching a campaign to force all employers to raise their wage floor far above even Washington State's already-high minimum.
There are a couple reasons why it makes sense to target a jurisdiction with an airport as its dominant employer. First of all, it's difficult for the businesses that make the planes run on time to leave, or lay off workers. Airlines already winnowed their staffs down to the bone anyway during the recession, and can't cut further without serious consequences. That's why the ballot measure's proponents don't worry about a higher wage having an adverse effect on employment over the long term, like it might if imposed on a wider scale: Higher wages have been linked to lower turnover rates, which lessens the cost of training new workers, and establishing a higher floor for everyone would mean contractors wouldn't need to compete by paying their workers next to nothing.
And second, most of the costs can be passed on to travelers, making the wage hike essentially a cash transfer to the SeaTac area from the rest of the world. According to an analysis by the community group Puget Sound Sage, visitors account for 68 percent of the revenues of companies subject to the ballot measure, which could cover the $40 million extra in wages by increasing fees by between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent.
Besides, SeaTac isn't breaking new ground here. Most of California's major airports have already improved wages and working conditions -- the Los Angeles City Council, for example, in 2009 extended a minimum wage of $15.37 to all airport workers, plus 12 paid days off. That's also given unions leverage to bargain for better working conditions. And the SeaTac ballot initiative would add even more, with a provision that allows employers to waive its requirements if they sign a collective bargaining agreement. Perhaps for that reason, the companies who are already unionized -- like HMS Host, which employs many of the food service workers in the airport -- didn't resist Proposition 1 quite so fiercely as those that are not.
About 1,500 workers in Sea-Tac are already unionized, and there's a clear divide in quality of life between those with representation and those without. A group of Hudson News employees, who are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, stood in stark contrast to the Menzies and Huntleigh workers as they took their lunch break from restocking the company's several convenience store locations within the airport. Instead of desperation and resentment, they had nothing but praise.
"I love Hudson. They're good to their employees," says Carry Gadsden, 59, busy eating leftover soup out of a plastic tub. She's worked for Hudson for eight years. The company employs most people full time, and pays for some health benefits and days off, but it's more than that: Their manager holds an all-hands meeting every morning where he tells employees how the company is doing financially, along with the plan for the day. If they ever have questions about what's going on, they can ask their shop steward.
Same goes for workers at ABM Services, whose unionized workers clean bathrooms, scrub floors, and empty trash cans. After working at the airport since 2000, Ahmed Yusuf, 33, has worked his way up to being a foreman. His wife works cleaning cabins for Delta, they live a few minutes away from the airport, and are able to cover costs for their two kids in grade school.
"I like working for this company. It's janitorial, but they're good to their employees," he echoes Gadsden. ABM workers start at $12.40 an hour, with full medical coverage and a 401K. "You show up to work, guaranteed nothing can happen to you. You have people here working 15 years, 18 years. This company has a different standard. It's up here," he says, holding his hand above his head before dropping it to signify the non-union contractors, "and nothing."
In retrospect, the ballot campaign was easy. The recount was a nail-biter, but it upheld the vote by 77 votes. The tougher fight will be the legal one, which has several levels of appeal left before it's exhausted -- and the airlines and the restaurant industry have ample resources to keep it going.
And then, despite the comparative inflexibility of the airport's labor needs, there's still a lingering worry that they'll find ways to cut positions and hours if labor costs jump dramatically. A study of the hotels in Los Angeles' hospitality zone showed no drop off in employment after the imposition of a higher minimum wage, but a hotel is much harder to move than a store or restaurant. SeaTac has 24 food and retail concessionaires, who collectively employ about 1,600 workers. Several have vocally opposed the wage hike, and some say it might not be worth their while to re-sign contracts.
"If we had to pay $15, we would go out of business so quick. I think it's absolutely ridiculous," says Brianna McCoy, 22, whose mother owns Diva Espresso, a local cafe chain with an outlet in the baggage claim area. She works there now as a barista, but plans to take over the business eventually, and says they'll have to lay one person off in order to make payroll. "It's a good business, but it's not enough to pay that."
Fifteen dollars wasn't an entirely arbitrary number. Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for Yes! For SeaTac, says that's what baggage handlers made back in 2005, before outsourcing started in earnest. Also, it's a symbolic figure that attracted national and international attention at a time when fast-food workers around the country were striking for the same thing.
"It's because of the number 15," Weiner says. "Fifteen captures people's imaginations. I think this has become the litmus test in this fight on inequality nationally."
And yet, the extreme reaction from people like McCoy -- businesses that might have been covered by the new law -- has wheelchair pusher Sydney McKenzie wondering whether it might have been a better idea to ask for eleven dollars, or maybe 12. Something that the companies might've been more likely to accept.
"I always thought it was unrealistic," says McKenzie, philosophically, the day after the County court gutted the ballot measure. He'd never really allowed himself to hope that the ballot measure would really succeed. "If it happened, it would be great, but I just didn't see how it would work, from the standpoint of how the companies would deal with that, it's such a large increase so quickly."
McKenzie, tall and white-haired with big gold-rimmed glasses, never finished high school growing up in nearby Everett, and couldn't ever quite break out of a string of low-wage jobs. Working graveyard shifts as a security guard took a physical toll, but there weren't really other options until he came to work at the airport 10 years ago. His company, Bags, doesn't give raises, so he's still making $9.19 an hour plus tips for shuttling the old and infirm from their gates to the curb. One amazing day, he got $50 in tips, which he used to buy a new pair of black New Balances. But that's rare. Now 55, McKenzie lives alone, and spends his free time scrounging for deals on food and used clothing. He stays off public assistance out of pride, but occasionally has to take food from a food bank. "My friends are my lifeline," McKenzie says.
As for retirement, though, there's no backup plan.
"Um," he said, when asked what he'd do when he's too old to work. "It's something that I can't do anything about."