Their victory in a federal courtroom in Chicago was slow in coming and far from complete.
But that’s how it goes these days in America for workers who want to join a union.
Barnett and Subijano were abruptly fired from their jobs as private security guards at O’Hare Airport on April 13, 2016.
Two weeks earlier they had joined other low-wage airport workers in a well-publicized, one-day unfair labor practice strike at O’Hare organized by the Service Employees International Union.
The women’s employer, Universal Security Inc., contends it fired them because they made statements to the news media revealing “sensitive security information” about airport operations.
That was always nonsense. They were fired because they had the nerve to publicly speak up about why they wanted to join a union, which included criticism of their limited training.
And until now, their firing was allowed to stand, soon followed by firings of other would-be union members, which had the desired chilling effect of discouraging labor organizing efforts at the airport. When another protest was held in November, none of the security guards participated.
But on Aug. 17, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin ordered Universal Security to immediately rehire the two women while their case proceeds before the National Labor Relations Board.
The judge sided with Paul Hitterman, acting regional director of NLRB District 13, who argued it was necessary to reinstate the women to show other Universal employees that federal law protects their union organizing activities.
“It’s a huge deal obviously for the workers. It’s a huge deal for the organizing campaign,” said Izabela Miltko, a spokesman for SEIU Local 1.
Yet the NLRB could still take months or longer to complete its work, leaving the women in limbo about their ultimate fate.
Questions remain about whether they will receive back pay and even whether they still want to return to their old jobs, considering they by necessity moved on with their lives after getting fired so long ago.
I was one of the reporters whose interviews with Subijano were cited by Universal as grounds for her dismissal, and I’ve felt a duty to her to follow the case.
Before her firing, Subijano had worked at O’Hare for 20 years and stepped up as a leader of the employees seeking to join the union, agreeing to serve as a spokesman for their concerns.
At the time of the March strike, Universal was paying its employees $12.15 an hour, and naturally, the workers hoped forming a union might get them a pay raise.
Just as important, they thought it would allow them to raise concerns about their work conditions, in particular their training, which Subijano said left them poorly prepared to respond to a real security threat such as a terrorist attack.
For her efforts, she was fired.
“Universal fired these workers because they knew the process would take this long and would intimidate other workers from joining the union or trying to organize,” Miltko said.
SEIU wants to organize not just airport security workers, but also baggage handlers, janitorial workers, cabin cleaners and others employed by private contractors at the airports.
Those efforts received a boost in July when Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance guaranteeing airport service workers a $13.45 minimum wage and the right to conduct union organizing activities without interference.
Universal received its city contract in 2007 to provide what it calls a “third level of security” at O’Hare using unarmed, uniformed personnel. The contract has been extended through November while the city rebids the job.
The next company that gets the airport security contract won’t be greeted by a union.
But thanks in part to Barnett and Subijano, it will have to play fair with the employees who want to join one.