By Bill Parry
For nearly seven years, airport workers across the borough have marched, held sit-ins and rallies and committed civil disobedience — like shutting down the 94th Street Bridge approach into LaGuardia Airport — in their fight for dignity and economic justice.
On Sept. 27, the workers celebrated as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a proposal to raise wages to $19 per hour by 2023.
The raise will constitute the highest minimum wage in the country and it will also result in real gains for the thousands of baggage handlers, security officers, wheelchair agents, and terminal and airplane cleaners at LaGuardia and JFK airports who had been making $13 an hour.
Desmond Grant, a wheelchair assistant at JFK, said the new wage policy will make a big difference in the lives of airport workers.
“This will have a huge, positive impact for the 40,000 of us and for me personally,” Grant said. “Making $19 an hour means I won’t have to constantly look for that second job so I can make ends meet. It means I’ll be able to pay my bills on time.”
In 2016, nearly half of the airport workers in New York and New Jersey had won union recognition with 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and negotiated their first contract, which now provides important workplace rights and protections including seniority rules, scheduling protocols, disciplinary procedures and health and safety guidelines. As the demand for a union was won, workers turned to the Port Authority to raise wages across the board.
“This is unprecedented and it’s your doing,” 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa told a boisterous crowd of workers outside the Port Authority meeting. “Your fought and won your union but you didn’t stop there. It is that persistence that is now helping all of you build a foundation in the middle class.”
Figueroa thanked Gov. Andrew Cuomo for supporting the airport workers’ campaign, which he did following Martin Luther King Day in 2014 when 32 union leaders, clergy and elected officials were arrested for civil disobedience in East Elmhurst after they shut down the 94th Street approach into LaGuardia. Cuomo delivered remarks at the Port Authority meeting.
“While Washington does everything it can to chop away at workers’ rights, New York continues to lead the way forward by raising the minimum wag and fighting to ensure airport workers earn a decent living,” Cuomo said. “This campaign is about respect and paying a fair living wage for honest work in an industry that depends on its employees to safely operate some of the most important public facilities in our nation — our airports.”
The Port Authority said the new policy will benefit the traveling public by reducing staff turnover and providing an experienced, well-trained, motivated workforce that can better assist in responding to an emergency, identifying security issues, operating equipment safely, and providing experienced customer service.
“The safe and efficient operation of the Port Authority’s airports hinges on a stable, motivated, engaged workforce which can enhance overall security efforts and assist customers in an experienced knowledgeable and positive fashion,” Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said. “We believe this substantially improved minimum wage for airport workers will greatly reduce turnover, improve morale and develop better trained workers as critical contributors to airport operations in this post 9/11 world.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr