• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size

Workers at four airports strike to protest abuses, this week in the war on workers

Share this post

Contract workers at four East Coast airports staged a one-day strike on Thursday, citing abuses by Eulen America, the company that employs them. The workers, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, ramp workers, and wheelchair attendants, service American Airlines and Delta.

recent investigation by CBS Miami’s Jim DeFede found that Eulen hires recent immigrants, pays them low wages for hours that fall short of full time, and has grueling working conditions, with workers lifting heavy bags in high heat and going without breaks or adequate hydration. Workers say they are transported to clean and supply airplanes in unsafe, cockroach-infested vehicles.

“A lot of the people are new to this country and they don’t know the laws or their rights, and then management takes advantage of that,” a worker told DeFede. A striking worker said his team isn’t provided with adequate cleaning supplies or staff to fully clean planes, and that supervisors are abusive to workers who speak little or no English.

Workers went on strike at New York’s JFK, Washington, D.C.’s National, and the Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports. Politicians, including Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Bill de Blasio, turned out to support them.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Share this post

Chicago Airport Workers Seek Fairness, Unionization

Share this post

David MobergCHICAGO—Even more than frustrated airline passengers who find the skies increasingly unfriendly, airline and airport workers—who only walk the airport terminals’ long corridors—are discovering that the air travel business is growing less and less congenial for them. In reaction, workers at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports—the nation’s second and twenty-seventh busiest—are trying to defend and improve the quality of their worklives by forming unions and pushing for more supportive public policy.

Local 1 of UNITE HERE, the hotel and restaurant union, has been successfully organizing workers in the retail concessions of both airports off and on for many years and, thanks to a new surge, now represents about 1,300 of the 2,300 concession workers at both airports. But the turnover of retail concession contracts mandated by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel could threaten the jobs or income of 1,500 of the concession employees in coming months.

Meanwhile, the Service Employees Union’s own Local 1 is organizing a wide range of passenger services workers—the people who push wheelchairs, drive shuttles, clean airplane cabins and do other essential but low-skill tasks.

A new study reveals just how bad their working conditions are: Over one-third, for example, don’t make the Illinois minimum wage, partly because they rely on tips—which many passengers don’t realize, and by federal law the personal service assistants can’t say anything to encourage tipping.

At the same time, even though employers break the law by refusing to bring the combined wage and tips up to the minimum, they report the workers’ income as if they made the minimum, thus taking out a bigger chunk for taxes than warranted by the real income. UNITE HERE promotes legislation—nominally supported by 31 of the city’s 50 aldermen, but indirectly opposed and delayed by Mayor Emanuel’s administration and his hardestcore loyalists in the council—that would help both sets of workers.

The “Stable Jobs, Stable Airports” ordinance would guarantee workers their jobs during a change in concessionaire contracts, require employers to maintain labor peace (not only helping maximize city revenues and increasing convenience for travellers but also restraining anti-union actions), and close an anomalous loophole in the existing living-wage law that exempts airport contractors. Similar rules govern several other major airports, such as those in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“It’s not like this is a real burden for Chicago to do because other cities have done it successfully,” says UNITE HERE organizer Jim Baker.

The law would immediately boost pay for about two-thirds of the workers to $11.18 an hour (providing on average a pay hike of about 22 percent or $4,000 a year, according to a study by a group of researchers from the University of Chicago and elsewhere). Chicago’s economy would benefit from $3 million to $8 million in new purchasing power. And the cost would be borne by a small reduction in the super-profits of airport sites, a slight increase in passenger costs, and savings in training costs with a more stable workforce.

The provisions for labor peace and transitional job protection would also help workers like Margaret Shields, a 38-year old mother of two boys in high school, who worked 12 years in retail shops at O’Hare’s international terminal building. When the city’s newly hired management firm subcontracted with The Hudson Group, a Swiss-owned airport retailer to run the store where she worked, Shields was the first of 12 workers (out of 21 total employees) who were fired.

Although a member of UNITE HERE, the contract at her store and union recognition had not been re-affirmed. The fired workers were disproportionately more experienced and higher-paid, says Baker. Shields had never been disciplined or criticized for her performance over her dozen years. But she was also a union stalwart. On Monday, January 11, after she had already prepared to leave at the end of her shift, Shields says, she refused to do work her supervisor told her to do, and she was charged with insubordination the next day. That was also the time a leaflet became public about a meeting with management on worker grievances, and Shields’ name was on it. The next day, at the end or her shift, she was fired.

Baker worries about what will happen as more new concession contracts are signed. “There are gains [from the new union presence], while limited, which could be eroded,” he says. But he also worries about the way in which the Stable Jobs, Stable Airports proposal has been buried in the committee of a council floor leader for the mayor. “I would think when an ordinance is introduced, it would get a hearing and vote,” he says.

The personal service workers, whom SEIU Local 1 is organizing in both Chicago and Houston, would gain from the legislation. But workers in both groups need unions and better across-the-board labor law enforcement. Most work for a few contractors who are hired by the airlines, and over half are foreign-born, either from eastern Europe or Latin America.

Beyond finding how many workers report not even receiving the minimum wage, the new study by University of Illinois Labor Education Program researchers reports that employers

  • failed to pay wages owed to one-third of workers at least once a year;
  • paid one-fifth of workers less than legally required overtime;
  • retaliated against 44 percent of workers who expressed some grievance;
  • illegally punished a third for union organizing;
  • illegally interfered with workers compensation rights of half of those injured on the job;
  • verbally abused more than one-fourth of workers;
  • deny over half the workers’ scheduled breaks;
  • either do not offer health insurance or charge so much that 95 percent of workers do not get health coverage through their jobs.

The personal service workers typically have no sick days or vacation and rely on public assistance programs to make minimal ends meet. Now Shields thinks many other airport workers like her are ready to work to change these conditions.

“You’ve got to put hope in the good fight,” she says. “I believe they expect us to give up. But we’ve got to keep it up for the next set of people, so they won’t have to go through this.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 6, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com

Share this post

Airport Workers Say Pay Is Illegally Low

Share this post

Dave JamiesonEvery day she goes to work at O’Hare International Airport, Elda Burke faces the same dilemma.

Burke, 30, works as a passenger attendant at the airport, escorting the elderly and disabled to and from their gates by wheelchair. Even though the airlines describe this as a free service, Burke’s employer has her working partly for tips, which is why her base pay is a low $6.50 an hour, somewhat like a restaurant server’s, rather than the typical Illinois minimum wage of $8.25.

But unlike diners at a restaurant, many of the passengers Burke will be escorting on their holiday travels this week won’t realize she’s working for tips — and by federal law, she won’t be allowed to tell them.

“We cannot say anything,” Burke says. “If we do that, they can fire us.”

Burke works for Illinois-based Prospect Airport Services, Inc., a company that has contracts to supply service workers at O’Hare and other airports around the country. Prospect and similar contractors often pay their workers like Burke at a reduced rate before tips, which allows them to shift a portion of the salary burden to passengers. Such a pay scheme is perfectly legal, so long as the employer makes up the difference whenever a worker comes up short of the minimum wage after tips.

But several attendants at O’Hare claim their pay often works out to be less than the legal minimum, an issue that lies at the center of an ongoing unionization push among service workers at the airport. The Service Employees International Union has been trying to organize workers at O’Hare and Chicago’s other airport, Midway International, this year.

SEIU officials say a union could help airport workers earn a living wage. They note that many have not seen raises in years and don’t have paid vacation or sick days, even though they carry some security responsibilities, like checking the cleaning crews who enter planes. Burke says she started out at $5 per hour in 2002 and has only received a $1.50 pay bump in her nine years. She also says she has gone without health insurance the entire time because the company plan is too expensive.

“A lot of them are paid poverty wages, in some cases below the minimum wage, and they have no access to affordable health care insurance,” says Izabela Miltko with SEIU Local 1. “They’re organizing to have a dignified workforce and to win higher wages.”

Tom Murphy, general counsel for Prospect, says that the company has been following all state and federal laws, and that the complaints from workers like Burke amount to “a union ruse.” A handful of workers recently filed labor-law complaints against the company with the state labor department, though a subsequent inspection of the company by officials found that the company was in compliance with minimum-wage laws, Murphy notes.

“For years they’ve always gotten paid well more than the minimum wage,” Murphy says. “Their paychecks match the law. I don’t know what more we can do.”

A labor department spokesperson says the state is currently investigating the allegations.

Workers who don’t earn the minimum wage are supposed to fill out “tip sheets” detailing how much they earned in tips and how much they’re owed by their employer, if anything. These sheets are rarely if ever filled out, Murphy says, because workers do in fact take home sufficient pay.

But Burke and some of her colleagues at O’Hare say many workers don’t fill out tip sheets because they feel their supervisors won’t deal with it or because they don’t want to be seen as not pulling their weight. Several of them told HuffPost that they often don’t earn the $1.75 in tips each hour that they’re expected to. According to a survey of workers done by the SEIU, 86 percent said there was a time they didn’t earn the minimum wage.

“A lot of people just stopped reporting their tips,” says Aaron Crawford, a 20-year-old aspiring pilot who takes public transit to O’Hare from Chicago’s South Side for each shift with the wheelchair. “They know it won’t be taken care of.”

Some workers attribute their low pay partly to the fact that they work in the international terminal, where many of the foreign travelers don’t have the tipping customs of Americans. The federal Air Carrier Access Act that requires airlines to staff attendants for disabled and elderly travelers also prevents those attendants from soliciting tips or putting out tip jars.

Waldo Gucwa, a 22-year-old student who’s been an attendant at O’Hare for three years, says that some workers who are desperate for tips try to artfully steer the conversation with passengers toward employment, in hopes that the passenger might ask if they can accept tips. Gucwa also says that many young, apparently able-bodied travelers seem to request wheelchair service as a way to bypass the lines at security, and often choose not to tip at the end of the ride. The attendants are forbidden from asking a passenger if he or she is actually disabled.

“There are days you leave here with 7 bucks, 8 bucks” in tips, says Gucwa, who said he supports the idea of a union. “When you go home and do the math, you’re not even getting the minimum wage, and that’s the reason people are getting real riled up around here.”

The O’Hare workers aren’t the first to say they’re earning less than the minimum wage escorting passengers. Last year a group of 20 workers who drive passenger carts at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport sued Prospect. The workers claimed the company had switched them to a tipped pay schedule because it had put in a low bid on the airport contract and could no longer afford to pay the full minimum wage, according to the suit. The workers said they did not “customarily” receive tips and were required to do odd jobs on top of escorting passengers.

Worker paychecks, the complaint alleged, were “extremely confusing” and often led to a wage below the federal and state minimums. Workers said they stopped reporting their low tips because they feared losing their jobs. Prospect denied the allegations and the case was settled, according to court documents.

This summer, wheelchair escorts at Bush International Airport in Houston lodged similar allegations against their employer, Nashville-based PrimeFlight Aviation Services. The workers were earning between $5.25 and $6.35 per hour before tips, and some told the Houston Chronicle that they were pressured to pad their tips out of fear they’d be punished or lose their jobs if their employer had to pay them more.

One worker told the paper she reports $80 worth of false tips each month, nonexistent earnings that she would be paying taxes on. PrimeFlight was receiving state funding for its workforce — up to $2,000 per employee — but the company was recently suspended from the subsidy program, the Chronicle reported earlier this month.

Keisha Davis, a passenger attendant at O’Hare, says she’s been trying to raise her two-year-old twins on her salary, but she can’t do it without food stamps and Medicaid. She says she was earning more money when she was pregnant, taken off wheelchair duties and paid a flat rate of $8.25 per hour. Now that she’s escorting passengers again, she too says her tips don’t boost her pay to where it needs to be.

“We really couldn’t make it without government assistance,” Davis says. “It’s like living from paycheck to paycheck to paycheck. … At the end, there’s nothing left.”

This article appeared in The Huffington Post: Business on November 23, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Jamieson is the Huffington Post’s workplace reporter. Before joining the D.C. bureau, Jamieson reported on transportation issues for local Washington news site TBD.com and covered criminal justice for Washington City Paper. He’s the author of a non-fiction book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, and his stories have appeared in SlateThe New RepublicThe Washington Post, and Outside. A Capitol Hill resident, he’s won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award.

Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Sign Up:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog


  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness


Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.