Shareeka Elliott arrives to work in the dark and returns home in the dark. At 6 am, when she finishes her eight-hour shift as a cleaner at John F. Kennedy International Airport, she takes two buses, the B15 and B83, for an hour-and-a-half commute to the house in East New York that she shares with seven family members. The commute is grueling; the work, more so. Her hourly wage of $7.90 provides barely enough to cover basic living expenses for her and her two young daughters, and she receives no healthcare or benefits. If she misses a day, she is expected to provide documentation of her whereabouts. At 26 years old, she is locked into a job that offers no prospect of its becoming a career.
On a blustery November morning, as the sky over JFK began to lighten, Elliott waited for the B15. With her were Diana Smith and Omar Dunkley, her colleagues at Airway LLC, one of the many contractors hired to provide “passenger service” positions at the airport. They were commiserating over the imposition of a new rule: the elimination of the fifteen-minute grace period at the start of a shift that allowed workers some flexibility in their travel time. Now, an arrival of five minutes past the hour results in a written reprimand.
According to Smith, an engaging middle-aged woman in a fuchsia winter coat, this type of arbitrary procedural change is common: “They make up their own rules. We don’t even have an employee handbook. I know in the real world, every company has a grace period—even McDonald’s.”
Dunkley, a young father with a class clown’s demeanor, agreed, citing the various ways their employer managed to cut costs: reducing shift breaks from two fifteen-minute blocks to one; subtracting lunch hours from regular pay rather than overtime to avoid compensating for time-and-a-half; chronically culling the staff, leaving fewer employees to complete the same tasks. He showed off a copy of his most recent check. Before taxes, Dunkley takes home $316 for a week of full-time work.
Elliott, who is thoughtful and soft-spoken, with wavy black hair that frames a serious face, maintained that the dismissive treatment of worker’s needs was the worst insult. “The hardest pill to swallow is really how people talk to you. You’re asking too much of me for the little amount I take home each week.”
For many workers at the three airports serving the New York metropolitan region—JFK, LaGuardia and Newark—these stories are all too familiar. Airway LLC is one of dozens of vendors contracted by major airlines to provide passenger service positions: security screeners, baggage handlers, ticket checkers, wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners, ground transportation dispatchers. These subcontracted workers (there are over 14,000 at the three New York–New Jersey airports) have no benefits or employer-provided healthcare and earn significantly lower wages than the largely unionized airline employees alongside whom they work.
A recent report on contracted passenger service workers at these three airports, published by the Women of Color Policy Network at New York University, found that they “are overwhelmingly people of color living in low-income neighborhoods surrounding the airports.” Concentrated in areas like Mott Haven, East New York, Canarsie and Jamaica—neighborhoods with some of the highest unemployment rates in the city—the 300 workers surveyed for the study make, on average, $8 per hour. More than ten percent hold a second job, and many rely on government assistance to make ends meet. A small number are homeless. Nationally, 37 percent of the families of airport cleaning and baggage workers receive some form of federal assistance, including SNAP benefits and Medicaid.
Workers like Elliott, Dunkley and Smith are rebelling against this cycle of poverty. At all three regional airports, subcontracted workers are campaigning to unionize, with the support of Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ. Their list of demands is wide-ranging: healthcare, paid sick leave and vacation, a living wage, an overnight differential for workers with odd hours. Though the effort started in 2011, it has gathered steam in recent months, driven by the national interest in airport wage campaigns in towns like SeaTac, Washington. Above all, SEIU members view the wave of progressive candidates elected to New York City public office on November 5 as an indication that some action may finally be taken; 32BJ President Héctor Figueroa called Bill de Blasio’s election as Mayor “a sign that the public is with us and wants to see our institutions supporting middle-class jobs.” The union is harnessing this momentum by holding a series of mass rallies at the airports throughout the holiday season, publicizing their cause to droves of traveling New Yorkers.
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All of the jobs in question were once middle-class positions, filled by workers directly by the airlines. Their transformation into poverty-wage jobs is part of the much larger story of America’s shift from a largely unionized, industrialized economy to a service-based, globalized system with low union density. Yet the rapidity and severity of changes to the airline industry remain striking.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act, removing government control over fares and routes, and the major carriers quickly looked for ways to reduce labor costs. Their strategy, which unfolded throughout the 1980s, involved outsourcing services once performed by airline employees and creating a two-tier wage system in which new hires made significantly less than people already on the job. The results were dramatic. Between 1991 and 2011, average weekly wages in the airport operations industry fell by 14 percent in real terms. The outsourcing of baggage porters more than tripled over that period, from 25 percent of the workforce to 84 percent, and their wages fell from over $19 an hour to $10.60. During the same time, passenger traffic among major US airlines grew by more than 30 million, an increase of 6 percent. In short: today, airline subcontractors are required to do more work for significantly less pay. According to the NYU study, “The substandard wages and conditions experienced by service workers contracted by the airlines are a direct result of the low-bid contracting system and a lack of baseline job quality standards.”
This severe wage erosion raises legitimate concerns for the air traveling public. Hundreds of workers pass through high-security areas each day, and security officers, baggage handlers and cabin cleaners are expected to vigilantly report any suspicious activity or object they come across. But because of chronic understaffing, a high turnover rate across airport sectors and the inadequate training many employees claim to receive, security concerns and safety hazards are often given short shrift. (Elliott says of her training as a new hire: “I just got thrown in the pool and told to swim.”) This combination of inexperience, substandard training and a multi-employer workplace allows for troubling holes in accountability and oversight. As Michael Allen, regional communications manager for 32BJ, said, “It’s this corner of our world that’s supposed to be really vital, that can be dangerous, as we’ve seen in previous attacks, yet people are paid such incredibly low wages.”
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The sheer number of contractors at the three airports is staggering: There’s Airway, Air Serv, Jet Way, PrimeFlight, Aviation Safeguards, Contego, Global Elite, Allied Aviation, to name a few. At JFK alone, some fifty contractors are listed in the member directory of the airport’s Chamber of Commerce.
Rafael Mercedes, a cleaner and security worker from Santo Domingo who has worked at JFK since 2009, remarked in Spanish that his employer had changed multiple times. “At first I worked for Aramark, and then Air Serv. And now ABM bought Air Serv,” he said. “I’ve been there for four years but it might as well be one, because when the company changes, you’re new again and you lose any benefits you might have accumulated. We don’t even know who we’re working for; they keep us in this limbo.”
Representatives from Air Serv, PrimeFlight, Aviation Safeguards and Jet Way declined to be interviewed for this article. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the three regional airports, also refused requests for comment.
Still, many airline analysts and trade associations defend outsourcing and consolidation as necessary life rafts for a struggling industry. Airlines have very high fixed costs for fuel and labor, and they say they rely on subcontracting to maintain some budgetary flexibility in periods of slow economic growth. “Labor is actually our second-highest cost,” Airlines for America PR and Communications Director Katie Connell wrote in an e-mail: “For those urging a higher minimum wage, it has the potential to cost jobs as employers may not be able to absorb the increase.”
Supporters of subcontracting also claim the practice helps to prevent major carriers from going bankrupt and protects passengers from bearing the cost of higher wages. Industry allies insist that increased labor costs will be passed along to travelers in the form of higher ticket prices and facility fees, such as parking and concessions. Yet this concern rings somewhat hollow, given that airlines have earned an estimated $42.6 billion in ancillary fees this year alone by charging passengers for formerly complimentary services, such as checking bags and printing boarding passes. And this month’s $17.2 billion merger of US Airways and American Airlines hardly suggests that the demise of the big airlines is on the horizon.
Despite the clear financial incentives for airlines to keep labor costs low, some cities, particularly on the West Coast, are forcing their hands. In 2000, the San Francisco Airport Commission passed the Quality Standards Program (QSP), a sweeping set of reforms that implemented stricter training programs for employees, mandated twelve days of paid time off per year for workers and raised the minimum wage for a range of airport occupations identified as important for safety and security. The wage increases implemented between 2000–01 affected some 10,000 workers at San Francisco International Airport. Living wage laws have also been passed for airports in Oakland, Los Angeles and Miami, among others. In the Washington state town of SeaTac, voters recently cast ballots on a fiercely contested $15-an-hour minimum wage initiative, which would cover thousands of workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Votes are still being counted.
Vaughn Cordle, a partner at the airline investment research firm Ionosphere Capital, sees these initiatives as a constraint on regional competition that put an undue burden on the airlines’ bottom lines. “It’s not a very good trend in terms of keeping costs down to market rates,” he claims. “Any airport that dictates higher than market wages or any other condition of employment could be considered less competitive. It’s a mandate that doesn’t fit with a private sector model.”
In October, however, economists at the University of California, Berkeley published a report devoted to those very questions, paying considerable attention to San Francisco’s Quality Standards Program. (Full disclosure: both the NYU study and this one were funded by the SEIU.) Their findings indicate that it has been overwhelmingly successful. Since its passage, the airport has witnessed a 30 percent reduction in worker turnover, substantial improvement in job performance and customer service and a marked decline in absenteeism and grievances. Estimates from San Francisco indicate that the program has resulted in only minor raises in ticket prices—about $1.89 per person, without taking into account any savings from greater productivity and the documented $6.6 million per year saved by the reduction in turnover. The QSP, which was initially established to address security concerns at the airport, also creates a formal relationship between the airports and the contractors: a month-to-month revocable permit that ensures that contractors comply with the agreement.
Ken Jacobs, one of the authors of the report and Chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research, says that these types of agreements are the best means for airport workers to achieve the job conditions they seek: “If a union comes in and organizes specific contracting firms, those firms will just lose the job in the next bidding process. By establishing a common floor, you level that playing field, raise wages and create greater worker stability.”
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The departures gate at LaGuardia airport’s Terminal B was busier than usual on the morning of November 12. A sea of workers decked out in SEIU’s signature violet rallied to call attention to their unionization campaign, holding signs reading, “Poverty wages won’t fly,” “We can’t survive on $7.25,” and, most frequently, “We demand respect.” 32BJ organizers passed out multi-lingual chant sheets, while City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer chatted conspiratorially near a police van. Around the perimeter of the rally, NYPD officers with crossed arms looked on.
Several local clergymen and workers took turns speaking, including Shareeka Elliott. She talked about how difficult it is to provide for her daughters and afford rent on an annual salary of $12,000. The public officials who took the mic offered a resounding message of support for the workers’ campaign. Though it is too early to know if they will make good on their promises, their rhetoric reinforced the perception that the changing of the guard at City Hall will have tangible results for low-wage workers.
Addressing the ebullient crowd of 200, Costa Constantinides, a newly elected City Council representative from Astoria whose district encompasses LaGuardia airport, said, “That’s what this election was about—standing with labor, standing with working men and women.”
Stringer, who had just been elected to be New York City’s next comptroller, struck a similarly populist tone: “Airlines are raking in billions of dollars every year and getting huge tax breaks. The hardworking people here at the airport only make $8 an hour. That is not what lifts up our economy—that is not the kind of New York that we need.”
And Quinn, whose relationship with pro-business Mayor Michael Bloomberg cost her key votes in the recent mayoral election, roared to the cheering crowd, “It is not okay for airlines to hide behind subcontractors…. We are here as elected officials, as private citizens, as people who fly to say we will pull every lever we can to make sure you get decent wages.”
The goal at Newark, JFK and LaGuardia, for now, is unionization. By negotiating with the major airlines, the contractors and the Port Authority, subcontracted workers hope to reach a labor agreement that raises the minimum wage and provides them with basic benefits. But the growing push for airport-wide standards at major hubs across the country leaves open the possibility that this campaign could lead to a broader formal wage agreement with contractors.
As José Peralta, New York State Senator from the 13th District, told the crowd, “To those who say it’s impossible, I say it’s been done in San Francisco. If they can do it there, we can do it right here in New York City.”