While Mayor Rahm Emanuel positions himself as a defender of the rights of immigrants, he’s refusing to back protections for low-wage workers at the city’s two airports, many of whom are immigrants and refugees.
And while the city spends billions of dollars – including huge contracts for political insiders – to upgrade its airports, which are depicted as “economic engines” driving local prosperity, thousands of workers who make that engine run are left in poverty and insecurity.
Last week, leaders of the City Council’s Black, Latino, and Progressive caucuses introduced an ordinance that would require contractors for ground services at O’Hare and Midway to pay wages and benefits comparable to those offered by building managers in the region. The ordinance would cover about 8,000 custodians, security officers, plane-cleaning crews, baggage handlers and wheelchair assistants.
It would also require contractors to sign labor peace agreements with unions seeking to represent their workers. Such agreements bar retaliation against workers who seek to organize; they also prohibit workers from striking, picketing, or otherwise interfering with operations.
Currently, airport workers earn the minimum wage of $10.50 per hour, or not much higher, with no benefits. Wheelchair assistants get the tipped minimum wage, now $5.95 per hour, far below the city’s minimum. “These aren’t high school students,” said Ald. Susan Garza (10th Ward), a sponsor of the ordinance. “These are mothers and fathers trying to support their families.”
On top of that, they are subject to widespread wage violations and are often fired if they speak up – largely because many of them are immigrants and refugees, advocates say.
Large numbers of the lowest-paid airport workers are refugees referred to contractors by refugee settlement groups, said Izabela Miltko of Service Employees International Union Local 1, which has advocated for airport workers.