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.
The momentum behind the workers’ campaigns also comes from a growing realization that airports, like fast-food restaurants, are emblematic sites of labor struggle for our current on-demand economy: Largely identical, with their antiseptic architecture and overpriced chain stores, airports are driving service industries with the same “lean” production model that relies heavily on outsourcing and subcontracting.
According to an analysis by Economic Roundtable (ERT), organizing across the airport sector would improve the livelihoods of a workforce of more than 660,000—nearly 40 percent of whom currently earn less than $15 an hour. And a union could help restore the job security and stable benefits that many workers lost through decades of neoliberal deregulation, something that Trump is poised to revive with his latest privatization plan for airports.
ERT estimates that if 2,200 major airports raised the hourly-wage floor to $15, the additional wages would stimulate local economies and directly affect 246,000 workers nationwide. By 2021, the higher wage floor would support about 25,000 additional jobs and boost local sales revenue by nearly $10 billion.
Since the government currently subsidizes the low wages of many impoverished airport workers through roughly $1.2 billion annually in public benefits through programs like Medicaid and food stamps, earning $15 an hour would save the government more than $430 million annually, while putting more cash directly into the economy through workers’ paychecks.
For the lowest-paid workers at airports, the $15 base wage would particularly impact service jobs that are known for precarity, high turnover, and exploitative schedules inside and outside airports. Airport restaurant workers typically earn under $13, and cabin cleaners have some of the lowest median earnings, at just $10.73 an hour. ERT estimates that “between 71% and 85% of workers earned less than Living Wage at the 21 major U.S. airports.” In the Denver metro area, for example, a single parent raising a kid needs to earn more than $26 an hour to cover basic needs—making it all the more critical to not just push for incremental wage increases but real workplace empowerment through a union in order to ensure long-term job security and benefits.
Yet despite poverty wages, airports may be ideal places to fast-track the $15 minimum wage. Because city and county governments can directly create a special zone around the airport with its own minimum wage, they might be ideal petri dishes for piloting wage reforms.
“The airlines and related employers at the airports can afford to pay workers better, since the airports are economic engines unto themselves,” says ERT researcher Patrick Burns. Their independent economic structure allows them to serve as frontiers for raising labor standards.
For example, the tiny SeaTac airport community in Washington became a Fight for $15 laboratory when it enacted one of the country’s first $15 minimum-wage laws, along with other pro-worker legislation. The town’s self-contained aviation economy has since become a national model as working conditions have improved without the negative business impacts that many feared.
Because airports are massively subsidized as part of the nation’s transport infrastructure, lifting labor standards on the runway helps hold the airline industry accountable to the public. And perhaps a living wage can ensure a smoother travel experience for passengers, too, if more of our overpriced airfare is finally invested back into the workers’ welfare.