From endless security lines to power outages—plus the occasional political protest or police assault—air travel has been a hellish experience for millions this summer. But while stressed passengers deal with unfriendly skies, the ground-service workers handling bagging, pushing wheelchairs, and cleaning plane cabins face some of the transportation sector’s most hostile working conditions.
Last week, airports in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Denver erupted with air rage—but this time it was workers expressing frustration alongside frazzled passengers. Workers organizing with 32BJ SEIU announced plans to strike at the airports to demand fair pay and schedules, but the work stoppage was suspended at the 11th hour in Philadelphia and the New York region when employers agreed to return to contract talks. But service workers in Denver, who have not yet won a union, did stay out on strike and protests continued at all the airports, calling attention to dismal wages and exhausting work schedules at United Airline’s cabin cleaner PrimeFlight, along with G2 and AirServ, contractors for wheelchair and baggage services. Meanwhile, about 200 subcontracted terminal cleaners at Reagan National Airport voted to authorize a strike; and the New York, New Jersey, and Philly workers say they’re prepared to walk off the job again, in solidarity with airport-service workers nationwide tired of exploitation and disrespect on the job.
Charles, a striker in Denver, says that a $15 minimum wage, up from his current $13 an hour, could help him finally move on from current temporary housing at his local church and into his own apartment. Though he earns above the local minimum wage, he still has to work a night job as a security guard in addition to his full-time airport job. His economic worries have deepened in recent weeks after he was suddenly hit with a seizure, and he still doesn’t have a diagnosis. All he knows is that his threadbare insurance benefits leave him saddled with heavy medical bills. He’s campaigning for not only a raise but for the the dignity of a union at work.
“I shouldn’t have to work as hard as I work right now,” Charles says, since he can’t make ends meet even with two jobs plus overtime. “Living here in Colorado,” he adds, “it’s pretty expensive…. All I do is work. I work and sleep, that’s it.”
The current labor disputes actually signal a promising horizon for airport ground workers. SEIU has led a massive organizing campaign at the country’s busiest airports, staging several strikes and mass protests under the banner of the nationwide Fight for $15 campaign. Service workers at several airports, including thousands in the New York area, have secured union representation and pushed for better benefits and called attention to systemic workplace health and safety gaps. A recent federal audit described serious hazards at LaGuardia and Newark airports, including exposure to blood-borne pathogens among cleaning workers.