In a surprise move last week after months of inaction, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey mandated a series of improved conditions for subcontracted workers at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports. Executive Director Patrick Foye, in a letter to the CEOs of JetBlue, Delta, American and United Airlines, demanded that all workers currently making $8 to $9 per hour or less get a $1 per hour raise, with an eventual phase-in to an hourly wage of $10.10. The decision will cover some 8,000 subcontracted service workers who do much of the work that keeps the airports running: cabin cleaning, baggage handling, terminal security and ground transportation dispatching.
Though these low-wage workers have campaigned for better working conditions for over two years with the support of Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, the Port Authority, which oversees and leases land for both airports, had until now kept silent. Yet the language of the letter was unequivocal: “Providing an improved wage and benefits package to the thousands of hardworking men and women that make our airport systems the largest in the country is something that cannot wait,” Foye wrote. Those four airlines make up a vast majority of air traffic at LaGuardia and JFK.
While the Port Authority’s decision marks a hard-won advance for the airport workers, their victory was soured by one major omission: 4,000 subcontracted workers at Newark Liberty, who perform the exact same duties as their counterparts at the other regional airports, will not be covered by the new measures. Nor will workers at two other New Jersey airports run by the Port Authority, in Teterboro and Atlantic City. At the Queens-based hubs, workers will receive raises, get Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday, and benefit from the agency’s stated promise to develop a three- to five-year plan with the airlines, contractors and union to improve wages and benefits for all airport workers. Those who work just across the Hudson River will gain nothing.
Derick Swaby, a 55-year-old cabin cleaner at Newark employed by PrimeFlight Aviation Services, is at a loss to understand why his workplace was left out of the landmark agreement. “I don’t see how you’re going to have a Port Authority that covers all the airports but has one set of rules at one airport and not at the next,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s ridiculous. If one state is in support of it, I don’t see why the other state would be opposing it.”
Interstate political tension seems to be the underlying reason for the Port Authority’s uneven mandate. While Democratic politicians in both states have voiced resounding support for the airport workers’ campaign, Republican officials, including Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, have repeatedly opposed initiatives to raise the salaries of low-wage workers. Since the release of Foye’s letter, many progressive politicians have come forward to condemn New Jersey’s stalling on the issue. State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, said in a statement, “Without identical action on the New Jersey side, employees who are performing the same job will essentially be defined as second-class workers…. Anything less than a direct, quick response would be a slap in the face to the men and women who work hard every day just to make ends meet.”