Airline workers begin negotiating first union contract

By Bill Parry

After three years of rallies, sit-ins, marches and civil disobedience, thousands of airport workers began bargaining for their first-ever union contract Tuesday. More than 7,000 workers, over half of all those employed by subcontractors at three area airports, have won the right to collective bargaining, including 4,300 workers at Kennedy and 1,200 at LaGuardia Airport.

“When we started organizing three years ago, I was struggling to survive on poverty wages,” Balfor Smith, a baggage handler at JFK, said. “Today my co-workers and I have a path to $15 an hour and we began bargaining for our first union contract. It has been an amazing journey and I know we can keep fighting until this contract is negotiated and in place to protect the rights we have won on the job.”

The workers are now members of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.

“Today was a historic moment for airport workers in New York, New Jersey and around the country,” 32BJ President Hector Figueroa said. “But there is still more to do. There are still thousands of airport workers in the region whose contractors have not recognized the workers’ right to a union. Airport workers across the region have vowed to keep fighting until all airport workers win union representation.”

The campaign began in 2014 with a Martin Luther King Day march at LaGuardia, in which 37 union leaders, clergy and elected officials were arrested for civil disobedience after they shut down the 94th Street Bridge approach to the airport. Among them was City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), a son of union workers.

“Airport workers—baggage handlers, security officers, sky caps, cabin and terminal cleaners—work hard to keep our airports safe and running smoothly,” Van Bramer said. “The people who protect us when we travel should make enough money to support their families, not have to take another job or rely on public assistance to make ends meet. I stand in solidarity with the 7,000 airport workers in New York and New Jersey who began bargaining for their first contract this week. Together we can win high wages, needed benefits, and a strong union for the airport workers who keep us safe.”

While the workers continue to negotiate for a contract that will cover workplace rights, it is still up to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to raise wages and benefits for all workers in the region. City Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), another son of union workers, joined Van Bramer and other elected officials at 32BJ’s headquarters in Manhattan Tuesday.

“Airport jobs used to be good jobs that you could support your family with, but unfortunately for the last three years, airport workers have had to fight to make airport jobs good jobs once again,” Richards said. “The wages (many) of these workers make are simply not livable in New York City. As one of the largest employers in Queens, we need our airports to negotiate in good faith to ensure that all New Yorkers can afford to pay rent and put food on the table without having to make essential sacrifices.”

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

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