Airport workers rally at JFK for fair contract, continue calls for racial justice

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Airport workers rally at JFK for a fair contract and healthcare under the Healthy Terminals Acts. (Courtesy 32BJ)

Hundreds of airport workers rallied at JFK Airport calling for racial and economic justice Wednesday, April 21.

The workers’ key demand is the proper implementation of the newly passed Healthy Terminals Act, which is meant to equip airport workers with substantial health benefits. Workers also protested the potential loss of a paid holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which has significant meaning for the workers in their years long struggle for respect and justice.

“I risked myself, my family to do my job throughout the pandemic,” LaGuardia Airport terminal cleaner Cristina Mendez told the crowd. “And these employers are penny-pinching over our safety and healthcare.”

Mendez is among the 10,000 subcontracted workers across JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports that are currently bargaining for a new contract, having met with the employers for the first virtual bargaining session last month. The essential workers, among the largest groups of contracted airport workers to start bargaining since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, said they are growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress being made at the bargaining table. The timing of their JFK rally — just a day after the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd — did not go unnoticed by their union leader.

“Yesterday, justice was served and our country took a major step in the right direction,” SEIU 32BJ President Kyle Bragg said. “However, we know that in order to achieve true racial justice, we must continue to fight for economic justice, healthcare justice and dignity and respect Black and Brown workers deserve. It’s unconscionable to think that these contractors are trying to get in the way of Black and Brown frontline workers receiving healthcare.”

The Healthy Terminals Act requires employers to pay a benefit supplement meant to provide sustainable and meaningful health benefits to thousands of essential airport workers, was recently passed. The airport workers fought and won the healthcare legislation in the middle of the pandemic, while the airline industry received up to $65 billion in federal bailout money under the CARES Act.

“I proudly voted to pass the Healthy Terminals Act in the Assembly because thousands of airport workers in need of necessary healthcare are the backbone of our airports and our states,” Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz said. “We will not sit here and watch employers try to cut corners and withhold healthcare.”

After a year defined by the pandemic and America’s racial reckoning, airport workers consider employers’ demands for givebacks a major step backwards in their fight for justice and equity.

“Airport workers risked their lives to keep our airports safe and our economy strong as the COVID-19 pandemic raged through our communities,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said. “Protecting workers means protecting passengers and instilling confidence in travel, and we can only do so with proper, meaningful healthcare. We need to build upon the Healthy Terminals Act which is so important to our workers, their families, our communities and millions of passengers who use our airports. I call on all the employers to take action and give airport workers a fair contract and healthcare they deserve, and I thank 32BJ SEIU for their continued advocacy and leadership.”

Airport workers include passenger service representatives, cabin and terminal cleaners, baggage handlers, security officers, wheelchair attendants and skycaps. Their current contract expired on April 1 and they are expected to head back to the bargaining table soon.

“I stand with my brothers and sisters, the frontline workers who have kept our airports safe and our economy running through the coronavirus pandemic,” Councilman Francisco Moya said. “A strong contract that includes quality, affordable healthcare will be crucial for airport workers and their families. It will also give Black, Latino and immigrant workers, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, an equitable opportunity to protect themselves from this and other diseases.”