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During the first weeks of 2018, subcontracted service staff at Virginia’s Reagan National and Dulles International airports got a raise. So did baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, and wheelchair attendants at Boston’s Logan airport, who also staged a 36-hour strike to defend their right to organize.
Soon, under laws passed last year, workers at other airports across the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles, will be getting wage bumps, too.
Airport employees have been mobilizing for higher pay and collective bargaining, gaining traction at a time when unions have been struggling. This month, passenger service workers at an American Airlines subsidiary, now represented by the Communications Workers of America, drew support from 81 members of Congress in their fight for a first-ever contract. Thousands of United’s catering workers petitioned last month to join the hospitality union Unite Here. And on Thursday, employees at New York’s three major airports—Newark-Liberty, LaGuardia, and JFK—who a few years ago joined the Service Employees International Union, will testify before the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (which oversees the airports) in support of higher wages and better benefits.
In the bleak landscape of private sector union drives, airport employees have provided a rare bright patch. Over the past two years, 11,000 low-wage airport workers have won union recognition with SEIU. Since 2014, unions have helped secure rules requiring higher labor or safety standards for over 100,000 airport staff.
Organizers have found success at airports in large part because of local public officials. The U.S. Supreme Court has given municipalities greater authority to impose labor-related rules in workplaces they fund, such as airports, and the unions have used political pressure to encourage officials to do just that.
“The politicians are crucial,” said Luis Castillo, an airport security guard and a member of SEIU’s bargaining committee at Denver International Airport. “If we have to go directly to the politicians to put pressure on the companies we work for, that is one of the things that we can actually do.”
“Where you have high turnover, you’re going to have people less aware, less prepared to deal with situations of emergency.”
Local officials and union organizers contend getting pay raises and more training for workers is a matter of travelers’ safety. Higher pay boosts employee retention and performance, according to a joint literature review released in October by the San Francisco International Airport and the University of California Berkeley Labor Center.
“Any situation where you have high turnover, you’re going to have people less aware, less prepared to deal with situations of emergency,” said Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, a Democrat who’s championed proposals to require paid training and better wages for Fort Lauderdale airport staff.
Union critics claim safety is a red herring in the context of airports. The “vast majority of the time, the employer is committed to a safe working environment,” argued Michael Lotito, a lawyer and member of the labor and employment law litigation committee of the right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “There is no need to turn to a union.”
Even where organizers haven’t won policy changes that directly open the door to unions, activists contend securing pay raises is a big first step. When airport wages rise, airlines have less motivation to cancel contracts with companies that become unionized, leveling the playing field, said Hector Figueroa, president of the SEIU local that’s responsible for East Coast airports.
After the Port Authority required a pay hike for contractors at New York area airports, SEIU won union recognition within a couple years for 8,000 workers among the three facilities. SEIU then negotiated a contract that, while not increasing wages, set rules in areas like scheduling and safety.
The strategies used in some airports aren’t easily replicated elsewhere in the private sector.
Unions have met with mixed responses from the airlines, which hire the service companies they’re trying to organize—and could end up footing the bill. The airline industry trade group Airlines for America was a vocal opponent of a Chicago ordinance that raised the airport minimum wage and required contractors at O’Hare and Midway to pursue “labor peace” agreements with organizers that restrict both strikes and anti-union campaigns.
But last year, after Philadelphia airport workers voted to unionize and the contractors they worked for refused to bargain with them, SEIU successfully appealed to American Airlines Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker. When one of the workers confronted him at a shareholder meeting, Parker said that American had “worked hard” with the city and with SEIU to guarantee that contracted workers had the option to unionize.
The airline eventually helped avert a strike by getting the contractors back to the table, leading to an announcement by American, SEIU, and the mayor of Philadelphia that the union and American’s contractors would begin collective bargaining.
“Agreements like the one we helped to facilitate in Philadelphia ensure labor peace and continued operational integrity at the airport, and that’s good for the entire airport community,” American spokeswoman Leslie Scott said in an email.
The strategies used in some airports aren’t easily replicated elsewhere in the private sector. But the effort does have the potential to increase union influence. SEIU is trying to organize 1 million airport workers, its international president Mary Kay Henry said last week.
Airlines operate across the country, she said to a crowd of airport workers at a 2015 convention. “They don’t just operate in one airport. They fly to a few others, don’t they? And they make profits in all those airports. Why do we have to settle for airport-by-airport settlement?”
Airlines, however, say it’s up to their contractors to deal with unions. Last year, dozens of airport workers and supporters were arrested in Chicago outside United Continental Holdings Inc.’s shareholder meeting, where they were demanding higher standards for contractors.
In response, United said that the protesters were raising an “important issue” and that it required contractors to obey all relevant laws. However, it added, “since we do not have a direct employer-employee relationship with our vendors’ employees, we must rely on them to work with each other directly.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.