JFK, LGA workers open bargaining for contract renewal

Airport workers rally at LaGuardia earlier this year in support of the Healthy Terminal Act which is now part of their collective bargaining process. (Courtesy of 32BJ)

Elected bargaining committees representing more than 10,000 majority Black and immigrant workers at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports and 32BJ SEIU members met employers virtually Thursday, March 4, in the first sessions for contract renewals.

The unit is the largest group of airport workers to start bargaining since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is expected to lead the nationwide conversation on essential worker safety and recovery in the coronavirus era.

“As our county continues to rebuild itself and leaves a year of pain behind, we must make sure that we rebuild an economy that works for the working people,” 32BJ EIU President Kyle Bragg said adding that he is calling for “a system that cares for the essential workers that cared for us.”

During a virtual rally prior to the talks, nearly 200 airport workers were joined by Queens elected officials in a show of support for the workers’ bargaining demands, which include smooth implementation of the recently ratified healthcare benefits supplement, worker health and safety protections, as well as expanded organizing rights.

“Queens is the gateway to the rest of the country and the world because of our airports, and there are many workers of color who regularly face systemic racial inequalities, which have been heightened by this pandemic,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said. “We need to ensure our airport workers have a voice on the job to fight for security, dignity, and respect. A strong contract for thousands of airport workers of color is a crucial step toward justice and equity. Our borough fully supports the hardworking staff of JFK and LaGuardia airports.”

Among workers’ demands is the implementation of the Healthy Terminals Act, the benefit supplement recently signed into law in New York which equips thousands of airport workers with meaningful healthcare benefits.

“If we are serious about recovering from the economic impact of this pandemic, we have to be serious about working for the working people,” said Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman, a co-sponsor of the bill. “I am excited to stand with you once again as you call for the seamless implementation of the Healthy Terminals Act and other provisions that will put health and safety to the forefront.”

The union reported that close to 60 to 70% of its airport workers were furloughed or laid off during the peak of the pandemic in April and May. However, 32BJj and its members expect recalls to continue as passenger traffic continues to increase.

“I’m excited to go back to a job I love; but without our union protections, that could’ve been the end of my career at the airport,” said Vladimir Claijune, a JFK passenger service representative who was furloughed in March. “We were reminded of the strength and importance of our union once again during the pandemic.”

Airport workers represented by 32BJ include cabin and terminal cleaners, baggage handlers, security officers, wheelchair attendants, skycaps and passenger services representatives. Union and elected officials signaled the importance of a fair contract in strengthening post-pandemic recovery and instilling confidence in air travel as the industry gears up for the post-COVID economic recovery.

“This year, the economic recovery is on the bargaining table,” Bragg said. “After the airline industry received up to $65 billion in taxpayer bailout money over the last 12 months, we are simply asking for the bare minimum the workers need in order to do their jobs safely.”

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