By Rich Bockmann
Dozens of low-paid, contracted airport workers rallied outside LaGuardia Airport Tuesday, continuing their call for better wages and benefits as the holiday travel season approaches.
“I make $8 an hour. That’s no salary,” Eugene Williamson, a security guard at LaGuardia from Brooklyn, said at the rally organized by the service workers union 32BJ. “By the time I pay my bills, the check’s gone already. I can’t even afford a MetroCard so I can come to work.”
More than 100 workers carried signs and chanted slogans Tuesday afternoon outside the departures level of the airport’s central concourse. The union has been working for some time now to organize security guards, cleaners, baggage handlers and other service employees at the region’s three airports in their fight for better wages and benefits.
The jobs used to provide workers with a solid, middle-class lifestyle they could rely on, but starting with deregulation in the late 1970s and exacerbated by industry woes following 9/11 and the recession, the trend has been for airlines to outsource the work to contractors that, critics say, creates a race to the bottom.
“We have a system that seems to be designed to maintain services while keeping workers in poverty,” said 32BJ President Hector Figueroa, a Jackson Heights resident, “These used to be good-paying jobs, but we see the same problems all across the contracting system, whether it be in health care or property services.”
The union has been working for more than a year now to put pressure on the airlines to force the contractors to pay better wages. Last year, workers at John F. Kennedy International Airport called off a threatened strike just a few days before Christmas. Union organizers declined to comment as to whether or not a possible strike is on the table this year.
Figueroa said that with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the elections of progressive mayors in New York City, Pittsburgh and Boston, he believes the tide is turning toward a more socially progressive public consciousness.
“People are starting to realize that income inequality is the problem of our time,” he said.
Earlier this year, Kennedy International Airport cut the ribbon on the $1.4 billion expansion to its Terminal 4, which is operated through a private/public partnership, and LaGuardia is set to undergo a $3.6 billion makeover, including a new terminal and other infrastructure improvements.
But while the airports are major drivers of the region’s economy, the investments are not necessarily trickling down to the communities surrounding them.
A report released last year by New York University showed that the median annual salary of 300 airline-contracted service workers surveyed was $16,640 — more than 25 percent below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.