UPDATE: On Friday evening, the airport workers who voted for a strike reached a tentative deal with American Airlines. Though the plan has yet to be finalized, the union reports American has agreed to provide subcontracted workers “a fair process to form their union.”
The election buzz hovers over Philadelphia ahead of the Democratic National Convention, but for the workers greeting the delegates as they arrive at the Philadelphia International Airport, the important ballot has already been cast: They just voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike during the event.
Airport workers occupy the margins of Philadelphia’s service economy, powering the local and national infrastructure with poverty-wage jobs, on government-subsidized land. The potential strike the workers approved last week could affect about 1,000 service workers, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, security officers, and wheelchair attendants—who want decent, secure jobs in line with the airline industry’s soaring profits.
The workers hope to steal some of the national spotlight on the convention hall by threatening a strike as they push for fair wages and union contracts, backed by SEIU’s nationwide airport-organizing campaign. In threatening to disrupt the convention, they’re rupturing a business model built on the exploitation of the city’s black working class.
The workers and organizers are pushing back against the airline industry’s structural shift since the 1990s, away from solid unionized jobs—which are now concentrated in aviation professions like flight attendant—toward subcontracted precarious work controlled by third-party vendors rather than the airlines.
The degraded working conditions at the airport—which community activist Reverend Greg Holston called “Philadelphia’s modern-day plantation”—reflects the post-recession trend toward unstable, subcontracted, non-union jobs across many fast-growing service industries.
“The airport industry is another example of…a model that’s based on having large employers compete with each other to pay and to treat people as poorly as possible,” 32BJ Vice President Gabe Morgan tells The Nation. “And in return for doing that, they are awarded contracts by other big employers.” By rallying for $15 and union rights, “what workers have started doing is questioning that system and saying…I deserve to be treated like a human being.”
A 2013 survey by Urban League and National Employment Law Project showed that more than 95 percent of airport workers lived in predominantly Latino or black communities—reflecting trends of racial and economic segregation. The city’s black population, both US-born and immigrants, suffers roughly double the joblessness rate of whites. The airport workforce, meanwhile, represents the flip-side of the problem: working poverty. With many workers juggling more than one job to get by, Morgan says, “It’s not like African-American workers aren’t working. This is 1,000 jobs that people work really hard at every day.”