By Bill Parry
A “potentially crippling” strike by 1,200 airport workers was averted just hours before the picket lines were to form at Kennedy and LaGuardia Wednesday.
Security officers were going to walk off the job for the first time during the workers’ three-year campaign for higher wages, better benefits and union representation, but instead they reported to their posts after Delta subcontractor Aviation Safeguards agreed to stay neutral as employees seek to join SEIU Local 32BJ, the union said.
Other airport workers, including baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants, had voted to join the strike with the security officers.
Under terms of the signed agreement, Aviation Safeguards will recognize 32BJ as the employees’ union of choice and agree to bargain a contract, if a majority of employees sign cards authorizing 32BJ to be their union representative. Organizers believe they have more than enough votes to join the union.
“We are pleased to announce that the voices of 1,200 workers have been heard,” SEIU 32BJ President Hector Figueroa said at a news conference at the LaGuardia Airport Marriott Hotel.
Aviation Safeguard’s parent company Command Security released a statement saying that its employees “will be guaranteed a peaceful environment” in deciding whether to pursue union representation. The workers had accused Aviation Safeguards of threatening to fire workers for union organizing, a charge the company’s CEO, Craig Coy denied.
“It’s a great surprise,” said Aviation Safeguard security officer Juan Chapman, who was planning to strike. “This means that all our bravery and organizing has paid off. Canceling the strike is acceptable with these terms. When you want something you have to fight for it. Don’t wait for help.”
Union officials said 32BJ intends to win a Port Authority mandate of living wages of at least $15 an hour and affordable health care for all subcontracted airport workers. The workers currently make $10.10 an hour.
The airport workers were making far less in January 2014 when thousands marched at LaGuardia to protest unfair wages and labor practices. In an act of civil disobedience, 32 people were arrested after a sit-in closed the 94th Street Bridge approach to the airport.
City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) was among the elected officials, labor leaders and clergy who were arrested.
“Aviation Safeguard’s decision to formally sign an agreement to bargain in good faith is a huge victory for the hardworking men and women of JFK and LaGuardia and a testament to 32BJ’s efforts to organize a meaningful campaign that gets results,” Van Bramer said. “This agreement is a step in the right direction toward pulling workers out of poverty and I will continue to support, push and help give this campaign the momentum it needs to once and for all bring these workers the dignity they deserve.”
State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), and ardent supporter during the three-year campaign, welcomed the news but warned that the airport workers’ fight is not over. “Like all workers, airport workers have a right to organize to seek better wages and benefits,” he said. “Airport jobs are supposed to be decent jobs, but far too often workers must choose between buying food or paying rent. This is unacceptable and it is my hope that Aviation Safeguards acts in good faith as it has promised to do.”
Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights), who fired up the crowds at several of the airport workers’ rallies, said, “The fact that Aviation Safeguards has agreed to stop union busting is a major victory. The workers who make our airports run safely and efficiently have been working under sub-standard wages and the iron thumb of their employer. They deserve better; they deserve a living wage and a place at the negotiating table. Our airports don’t just need a facelift, they need a wage lift.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr