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Air travelers should want airline contract employees to be paid well and unionized

Airport workers like me help make air travel safe, clean and comfortable all over the world. We deserve living wages.
Image: SEIU Rally
From left, Robin Wilson, Margarita Salguero, Tim Maddox and Javon Houston hold a rally at LAX in support of contract airline workers.T. Albert / SEIU

More than one in every three U.S. airport workers is paid less than $15 an hour, and most of these workers qualify for public assistance to cover basic necessities like food. Meanwhile, our labor helped the top six U.S. carriers bring in $13.2 billion in profits last year. On top of that, airlines get $13 billion in tax subsidies each year.

I recently went to Amsterdam to meet with airport workers from Thailand, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Korea and Germany. What I saw was like a mirror image to our experiences in America: Airlines are contracting out various services to the lowest bidder all over the world, usually to irresponsible contractors that drive down wages and benefits. People are overworked and underpaid everywhere, except at corporate headquarters — airport workers in Thailand are paid only $10 a day, for instance, and, in Indonesia, it’s $1.50 an hour.

We all help passengers get to where they need to go. We clean the cabins and terminals. We keep people safe. We are the ones who make the world’s largest airports run. And now it’s time for the airlines to pay workers their fair share, treat people with respect and support our right to form a union.

That is why we rallied on Tuesday at 40 major airports in 13 countries to call for fair wages and the right to form a union. We chose to stage our protests at airports through which nearly 4 million people pass each day, including some of the world’s largest airports — Los Angeles International, where I work as a wheelchair attendant, Charles De Gaulle in Paris, Schiphol in Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

We all work for the same companies; the airlines are global, and so are we. It doesn’t matter where we come from, what language we speak or what we look like: When we stand up for each other and take on the airlines that are holding us back, anything is possible.

My experiences growing up and as a Black man are the reason I have always stood up for others when I see injustices. I grew up in Detroit and my parents were both active in justice movements: My mom registered voters and worked as a poll worker. She even brought Rosa Parks to speak at my elementary school. My father worked for Chrysler and stayed active in the UAW even into retirement. He was able to retire on a pension negotiated by his union and live a good, long life. I saw the power of a union back then and saw how important it was for everybody to be involved.

That’s why I’m involved with my union today: Everyone deserves a living wage and the ability to retire with dignity.

I have been a leader in my union, SEIU-USWW, for 10 years. I started organizing with USWW when I was working at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX for a company called Aero Port Services. It started alright, but turned into a nightmare:. They began cutting staff members' hours and thus pay, mistreating people and hiring family members instead of having an open hiring process. They told us that if we didn’t like it, “there’s the door.” I wasn’t going to stand by and see anybody disrespected at work and I knew a union was the vehicle to change that.

The company pulled out all the stops to keep us from unionizing: They hired lawyers, they retaliated against us and they threatened to shut the company down if we formed a union. We weren’t afraid. We went on strike and won.

Since we won that union at LAX, my wages nearly doubled and my coworkers and I have paid family health care and paid days off. We also got the city to increase the Living Wage Ordinance which means that, over the next three years, new employees will go from $12 to $17 an hour and senior employees will go from $15 to $20 an hour.

We did it by coming together across our differences. Airport workers at LAX are from all over the world and most contracted airport workers in the U.S. are people of color and immigrants. We have different backgrounds and different experiences. And the policy changes we’ve won are a direct result of all of these workers coming together as one, demanding action together on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall and speaking out with one voice as a union.

We’ve done a lot, but there’s still a long way to go. We are working with our brothers and sisters at other airports like San Francisco International Airport to help them secure the same type of contract that we have at LAX, so that we can set a statewide set of standards for airport workers in California.

And even at LAX, where we have a union contract with regular raises and benefits, we have to keep pushing to keep our heads above the rising costs of living in our area. Some companies will always try to take us backwards but, when they try, our union will be there every step of the way, fighting to make sure our employers do the right thing.

America’s strength comes from people’s ability to work together, regardless of race or geography. But today, greedy companies around the world are trying to divide us based on what we look like, where we come from or how much money we have. Airport workers like me won’t stand for it any longer — and neither should the airline passengers who we help keep safe, clean and on time to their destinations.