By Bill Parry
Nearly 1,000 airport workers marked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a rally, march and a sit-in at LaGuardia Airport to demand better wages, benefits, working standards and the right to union representation. Unlike last year’s march where 37 union leaders, clergy and elected officials were arrested, the Jan. 14 civil disobedience came to an end after the first warning given by police.
The 2014 march resulted in a call to action by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who oversee the Port Authority. The bistate agency demanded that the four airlines that serve both Queens airports raise wages for workers making $9 per hour or less by $1.
In August, Cuomo announced that American, United, Delta and JetBlue had all finally agreed to the increase beginning Feb. 1, but the Port Authority has not released a promised plan for better benefits and working standards.
“Airport workers’ dreams of a better life have been delayed, but the support they have seen at this year’s and last year’s Martin Luther King marches shows that they are not alone in the fight,” 32BJ/SEIU President Hector Figueroa said. “Martin Luther King called for respect and dignity in work and that is what today is all about.”
A recent study found that 88 percent of the 8,000 subcontracted workers at JFK and LaGuardia airports reported at least one kind of wage as well as hour violations in the last year alone and more than half reported multiple kinds.
“The Port Authority leadership must do everything in its power to stop these abusive wage and labor violations,” city Public Advocate Letitia James said. “Wage theft is illegal and immoral, and these hardworking airport employees deserve better.”
In a statement, the Port Authority responded, saying it “has taken a lead role in seeking higher wages for third-party contract workers employed at the region’s airports. Already, the policy has led to a $1 increase per hour for those making less than $9 an hour. The agency also has proposed a revision to include retail and concession workers at our airports under the policy as of April 1. with that proposed amendment currently in a public comment period.”
Additionally, agency representatives Walberto Santiago, a security officer at LaGuardia, said, “We have been fighting for two years for these changes, and just like we keep the airports running on time, the Port Authority should have been on time with their promise to raise our wages and benefits.”
Over the last year alone airport workers have filed various lawsuits and complaints for unfair labor practices, health and safety violations, wage theft and more. Delegations have gone to subcontractors, airlines and the Port Authority to explain the effects of poverty wages and little or no benefits on cabin and terminal cleaners, skycaps, baggage handlers and security officer’s lives.
The Port Authority also said its representatives” continue to work with our airport partners on related issues of importance to these third-party, non-Port Authority workers with the goal of enhancing safety, security and quality of service at our airports.”
Gian Lopez, a 22-year-old baggage handler at LaGuardia who depends on a $9 hourly wage, food stamps and rental assistance, told the crowd,” It’s very hard to know if you’re going to have money for your daughter.”
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) took part in the march for the second straight year, telling the crowd, “It’s morally wrong to leave those behind that are making America economically strong. It is fitting that on Martin Luther King Day, we continue to fight for fair wages, benefits and working standards. Our airport workers deserve the dignity of fair compensation and just labor practices and I am proud to be a part of this effort.”
State Sens. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) and Tony Avella (D-Bayside), city Comptroller Scott Stringer all spoke at the rally.
“We are going to continue the fight that Martin Luther King began,” Figeroa told the crowd. “We want all that we have earned and we are going to win this year.”