By MARK UGOLINI
— CHICAGO — On Nov. 29, about 500 courageous low-wage workers at O’Hare airport walked off the job at 10 a.m. to demand an end to unfair labor practices. The workers also expressed their solidarity with fast-food, hospital, health-care, and other low-wage workers who were simultaneously demonstrating nationwide for a $15 minimum wage and union rights.
“Fight for $15” protests took place in more than 340 cities across the country. Concurrent rallies were held in 18 other airports around the country, including Boston, Washington, D.C., Denver, Atlanta, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Newark.
Chicago’s striking airport baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, janitors, and wheelchair attendants were joined by supporters, overwhelmingly local union members, in a militant protest of about 2000 outside the airport’s departure entrance. Rally speakers called out airport and city government refusal to take action to correct widespread abuse of low-wage airport workers, most of whom are earning Chicago’s minimum wage of $10.50 per hour.
For the past year, low-wage workers at the nation’s second busiest airport have been supported by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), building their case for $15 and a union and fighting against a campaign of employer retaliation against worker organizers. Low-wage workers at the airport typically work for Air Scrub Inc., Prospect Airport Services, Air Serv, or the city of Chicago, which provide contract labor services to the airport and the various airlines.
Union activist Kisha Rivera, 41, an airplane cabin cleaner, explained the plight of the O’Hare workers when she addressed the airport rally. She described a pattern of employer abuse including wage theft—shorting employees of hours worked, especially overtime on their paychecks. She also described unsafe working conditions and hazards widespread throughout the airport. “We are treated like the garbage we clean in the planes,” said Rivera: “We’re not asking for special treatment, we’re asking for decent treatment. We’re asking for decent wages. We’re asking—No! We are demanding respect!”
Another activist, Oliwia Pac, who works several service jobs for Prospect Airport Services, spoke to the crowd about the unity and determination of airport workers: “Over the last three years workers like me have been building a movement for $15 and union rights. And now we are on strike after employers retaliated against us for coming together.
“While airlines are raking in billions, the workers who are keeping the airport running can barely make ends meet, and every day workers face serious problems. … We brought to light rampant wage theft across the airport as well as hazardous and unsafe conditions. I’ve had my wages stolen. I’ve been injured on the job. It’s unacceptable. A world class airport should treat its workers with respect, and protect our rights. … A world class airport should pay its workers a living wage… but so far the airport has not been listening to us, and the city has failed to protect us against an employer that retaliates against us. The result [the strike vote] shows we are ready to take matters into our own hands. We can’t rely on our employers, we definitely can’t rely on the city to protect us. We can only rely on ourselves!”
Prior to the rally, SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff told Socialist Action that the union was committed to stand by the airport workers to counter the inaction of the airport and the city: “There are thousands of workers here who work in poverty, they don’t earn living wages. The airlines have been very successful. …The workers are demanding living wages. They spend the money, that’s how they build their communities. The purpose of the strike is to elevate the voice of the workers so that the powers that be know that we are united, that we are fighting and we are not going to give up.”
Balanoff described a fundamental shift that came with sweeping deregulation of the airline industry in the late 1970s: “All these jobs used to be good-paying union airline jobs, then when they deregulated the industry, they contracted out all these jobs, took people to minimum wage, no benefits, and non-union. Deregulation—they said it would be the greatest thing ever. It’s only the greatest thing ever for the airlines. The employers don’t want to recognize the union. If they don’t want to recognize the union they are going to have to deal with these strikes.”
In his speech to the crowd, Balanoff announced that the airport workers decided the strike would be just one day, and they had not intended to disrupt airport schedules, although that may well not be the case in the future. “We will be back!” he said, pointing to the need for a larger scale response in the future if the city and airport continue to ignore low-wage workers.
Non-union workers were joined at the protest by some unionized airport workers, including gate agents from Communications Workers of America and ramp workers from Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 571. Socialist Action spoke with Gilbert Huertas, president of Local 571, who described his local’s support for $15 and unionization of all airport workers, and dissatisfaction of his entire 1200-member local in the wages and benefits in their existing six-year contract. Much of his local membership is paid well below $15 per hour. “We are all underpaid,” said Huertas. “To be honest, I’ve worked here 28 years and I’m only making $15.76 per hour.”
The O’Hare low-wage workers voted in favor of the strike one week earlier in an election assisted by SEIU Local 1. However, Air Serv, a subcontractors that employs nearly 300 low-wage workers at O’Hare, filed a lawsuit arguing that the workers should be bound by the Railway Labor Act, which requires mediation and other processes to prevent strikes. The SEIU argued that since the workers are not directly employed by the airlines, they are protected by the National Labor Relations Act. On the day before the scheduled O’Hare strike, a federal judge denied Air Serv’s motion.
In another interview with Socialist Action, Kisha Rivera discussed a meeting between workers, the union, and an employee representative the day before the strike. Rivera showed the company the results of the strike vote, and said the workers wanted a guarantee that there would be no retaliation against striking workers. She reported that the company representative agreed not to take disciplinary action against the strikers, but that the workers would be vigilant to identify and fight back against any reprisals.
“We are used to getting written up or fired if we miss work on a normal day,” Rivera said. “We have no way to even protest. … Now he [the company representative] promised us that we won’t get fired or written up for striking. We have many witnesses to what they told us. But he was so angry when he left the meeting. His face was red as a beet! We will be watching what they do!”
Photo by Socialist Action: Union activist Oliwia Pac speaks to Nov. 29 rally at O’Hare airport.