Airport workers walk again for wages

By Bill Parry

More than 100 low-wage airport workers marched 10 miles from Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports Friday to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while renewing their call for major air carriers to increase hourly pay, improve benefits and recognize MLK’s birthday as a paid holiday.

After a rally and protest march in January, two of the airlines agreed to the demands but only Delta Airlines has followed through on its promise. American Airlines joined Delta, but its workers have yet to receive the dollar raise. JetBlue balked and United Airlines has remained silent on the proposals, according to a spokesman from SEIU 32BJ.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan), who was one of 32 arrested for civil disobedience in January, returned to march with another veteran of the civil rights movement, 90-year-old Hazel Ingram, a cleaner at JFK and a member of SEIU 32BJ for 63 years.

“I want to help people get better benefits and raises,” Ingram said at the April 4 rally nearly five decades after King was assassinated. “I marched the entire 10 miles in the wind and the rain so that future generations don’t have too, and yes, I’m a little tired right now.”

Shareeka Elliot, another cleaner from JFK, has become the face of the younger generation after she went to Washington as U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) guest to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January.

The 27-year-old mother of two had just finished her overnight shift when she joined the march to LaGuardia Airport, where she spoke to a large rally.

“Every step we took is a step towards change. You all keep walking and keep standing up for justice,” Elliott said.

Before returning to JFK to begin her next overnight shift, she said her activism has been educational and that she has become more comfortable with her role as the face of the movement.

Several elected officials spoke at the rally. State Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) said, “No one who works full time in America should live in poverty. The race to the bottom ends here.”

City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), the daughter of union parents, welcomed the protesters to her district and said, “Too many of the passengers who use this airport are more worried about their frequent flier miles instead of the workers.”

Willie Francoise, a member of the clergy, added to that theme, saying, “There’s nothing normal about cleaning cabins that you can never afford to fly in.”

The marchers began a countdown to April 28, the expiration date for a 90-day deadline set by the Port Authority for the other major carriers at Kennedy and LaGuardia, United, American and JetBlue, to come up with a plan to increase hourly pay to at least $10.

“Fair wages for airport workers and strong profits for their employers are perfectly compatible, as we have seen in San Francisco,” state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said. “We can’t stand by while low wages and no benefits lead to an astronomical turnover rate that puts lives at risk. Let’s come to a fair deal and keep our airports running at full capacity.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.