On October 2, a global movement for airport workers took flight at the world’s largest transit hubs, from Seattle to Sydney. Workers who keep airports running every day demanded a fair share of the the aviation industry’s soaring profits, including a living wage, improved safety standards, and union rights.
Backed by an international coalition of about a dozen unions, the multicity demonstrations, which collectively disrupted an estimated 36 percent of global aviation traffic, showed the impacts of the industry’s massive consolidation and commercial deregulation since the 1970s—a steady downward spiral of labor standards and wages.
According to Economic Roundtable, currently “Over 46,000 US airport workers and their families live below the poverty threshold,” and they collectively absorb an estimated $1.2 billion in public benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid.
Airline-industry profits, meanwhile, have soared—from $10.7 billion in 2013 to $38 billion in 2017. Annual executive salaries are ballooning to hundreds of times more than frontline-worker wages, according to an analysis published by a coalition of airport unions. And airport contractors and carriers have fought fiercely to keep unions out. In the case of United Airlines, organizers recently uncovered a massive anti-union campaign that blanketed United’s kitchen workers with anti-labor propaganda and mass surveillance to intimidate and cajole workers into rejecting unionization.
A generation ago, aviation was seen as bulwark of unionized middle-class jobs in the modern global service economy. Over time, multinationals have consolidated their power and spun off frontline staff to outsourcing firms that typically downgrade wages and impose exploitative workloads and schedules—while charging passengers more and more for worsening service.
In recent surveys published by Communications Workers of America, workers with the American Airlines subsidiary Envoy Air described in painful detail “extreme measures they must take to cover basic living expenses, including selling plasma, buying out-of-date food, and borrowing against retirement accounts.”
A 2012 study on New York City–area airport workers found that subcontracted workers were typically paid just $8 an hour—amounting to well under half of the estimated living wage for the region. About four in 10 workers reported they had trouble paying for housing each month, and one in five struggled to feed their households.