Airport workers win wage war with airlines at JFK & LGA

By Bill Parry

It took nearly seven months of protest rallies, marches and sit-ins but airport workers at LaGuardia and JFK airports finally have the promise of increased wages.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last Thursday that contractor and sub-contractor workers making less than $9 an hour or less will see an immediate $1-an-hour increase and all workers will receive a raise to $10.10 an hour Feb. 1, 2015, if they are making less than that.

Starting in 2016, the wage level will rise each year by the annual percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index.

“Nearly 50 million visitors to New York depend on the airport workers at JFK and LaGuardia, and their wages should be reflective of this responsibility,” Cuomo said. “By increasing the pay of thousands of hardworking airport employees, we are rewarding them for job performance, creating a more stable workforce and ultimately ensuring a better experience for all.”

The movement for fair wages and benefits kicked into high gear Jan. 20 when nearly a thousand security workers, sky caps and cleaners rallied on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Dozens of protesters were arrested along with clergy and union leaders after a civil disobedience closed the 94th Street Bridge into LaGuardia Airport. Among those arrested were U.S. Rep. Charles Rangle (D-Manhattan) and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside).

Pressure from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo led Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye to pen a letter two weeks later to the CEOs of four major airlines that use the airports demanding the wage increase.

“The non-trade labor contract force plays a critical role in the safety and security of our airports,” Foye said. “These tens of thousands of workers are underpaid despite their important operational roles at the airports.”

American and Delta complied, but United Airlines did not agree to the wage hikes until mid-July. JetBlue remained the last holdout until Aug. 6 when 50 protesters, led by Bishop Orlando Fyndlater, of the New Hope Christian Fellowship, rallied at JetBlue’s corporate headquarters in Long Island City.

The bishop and several of the workers entered the building and asked to meet with the airline’s CEO, David Barger. After a 30-minute wait, Bishop Fyndlater was told that Barger was out of town.

The bishop, clearly annoyed, went back to the workers outside and said, “We will continue to fight on your behalf until you get everything you deserve.”

A JetBlue representative arrived with a corporate statement claiming the airline had reached an agreement to raise the wages during a meeting with the Port Authority in April. A source said the April meeting was just talk and that no agreement was reached at that time.

Cuomo’s announcement was a victory for the workers, thousands of whom voted to join SEIU 32BJ in May, after the union organized the movement.

“Today marks the first step in changing the lives of thousands of low-wage airport workers,” SEIU 32BJ President Hector Figueroa said. “The commitment of Gov. Cuomo and Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye and the resulting outcomes are a clear example of what a powerful force government can be in transforming lives and making communities stronger.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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