This worker at LAX makes a living wage, because the city forced airport contractors to pay it. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Today, the Philadelphia City Council officially signed a new lease with several airlines for its municipally owned airport. But it’s not just any lease. In the details, there’s a giant gift for workers: A wage hike to $12 an hour, not including benefits, up from the current Pennsylvania minimum wage of $7.25.

And that's not all. The wage provision also covers employees of all the airlines’ vendor companies — a population that has been hard to reach, as the industry has contracted out basic services, a shift that has helped depress wages for airport workers through the 2000s. And it includes a provision requiring airport employers to remain neutral in any union drives, which should help the group pushing hardest for the changes — the Service Employees International Union — finally organize the airport’s contracted workforce.

That’s a big step forward for the wheelchair pushers, ticket takers, baggage handlers and cabin cleaners who work for low wages and few benefits. And it’s just one of a string of victories pushed by a couple big unions that have leveraged public control of airports to win concessions from airlines that have proven difficult to achieve in purely private sector industries.

“It kind of depends on who has the authority in various cities,” explains SEIU Vice President Valarie Long — be it a port authority, a city council, or a state legislature. But the fact that the industry is willing to go along with the provisions is important too — as American Airlines was, in bargaining on behalf of the industry in Philadelphia. "American Airlines is the largest airline, so it is very significant that they do what it takes to raise standards,” Long says.

Philadelphia isn’t the first significant win for unions in the airport world. San Francisco International Airport established a so-called living wage for airport workers back in 2000. Los Angeles airports implemented a similar ordinance in 2010, put in more worker protections in 2012, and last year required all airport contractors to come to agreements with worker organizations (though trade groups representing the airlines challenged the new rule in court). The airport-dominated town of Sea-Tac, Wash., outside Seattle, became the first jurisdiction in the country to pass a $15 minimum wage in 2013, although the law is currently being appealed.

Here are a few more: Minneapolis required vendors to offer paid sick leave last December, and raised wages $1 above the state minimum in May. In April, Portland passed a policy to encourage worker retention when contractors change. On the East Coast, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ordered wage hikes for airport workers at the beginning of 2014, a few years after SEIU launched an organizing campaign (and won).

Still, it’s slow going in many places. SEIU, which now represents about 15,000 airport workers, is also working on campaigns including Boston, Fort Lauderdale, and Newark. Another union, UNITE-HERE, has been trying to win higher wages and an agreement not to fight unionization for concessions workers at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport for years now, but encountered a setback when Maryland elected Republican governor Larry Hogan last fall.

“Bringing in a new top decision maker means there’s a learning curve to get over here,” says UNITE-HERE senior research analyst Bhav Tibrewal. Tibrewal is now pushing the concessions operator, the German company Fraport, to recognize the union — but so far, Fraport hasn’t been open to talking. He’s even talked to lawmakers in Greece, which is considering contracting with Fraport to run its national airports, to tell them about the labor strife still ongoing in Baltimore in hopes of pressuring the company to come to the table.

In contrast to line items like fuel and airport rents, contracted labor is not a gigantic cost for airlines. And for some companies, any resistance is not so much about wages as it is about the ability of the traveling population to pay higher prices. American Airlines, for example — whose flight attendants and pilots are already unionized — says it would prefer that cities or states raise wages across the board, rather than targeting individual industries, so that communities can absorb any price increases that might result.

We’re fully supportive of wage increases, and we’re always working with our vendors to make sure they’re paying fair wages," says American Airlines spokesperson Casey Norton. But when the community is better paid, it makes it easier, rather than just isolating it on one particular work group or industry, as far as purchasing power.”

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