Chicago set to raise airport workers’ pay, clear path to a union

Edith Alvarenga has spent the past 12 years picking up trash, sweeping up crumbs and mopping up spills — and occasional bodily fluids — that passengers leave behind on airplanes. And she loves it.

She loves that nearly everyone at O’Hare Airport knows her. She loves helping passengers, especially Spanish-speaking travelers, when they aren’t sure where to go. She loves seeing people arriving and departing, which makes her feel like she is traveling herself.

What Alvarenga says she doesn’t love about her job as a cabin cleaner in Terminal 3 is that she gets no benefits, that her $11.50 hourly wage is barely enough to make ends meet and that workers are sometimes treated unfairly.

So she is excited for Wednesday, when the Chicago City Council is expected to approve an ordinance that would boost the wages of O’Hare and Midway airport workers and clear the path for them to unionize.

“When we don’t like something, the best thing is to fight to make it better,” Alvarenga, a native of El Salvador, said in Spanish. “I like the work and I want to make this job better.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced the ordinance in late July after a two-year campaign by the Service Employees International Union to hold the city accountable for the pay and working conditions of airline subcontractors, part of a national push by the union as it seeks to add airport workers to its rolls.

Chicago’s ordinance makes labor standards part of the requirements for obtaining a license to provide services at O’Hare and Midway airports. It covers nearly 8,000 workers employed by contractors hired by the airlines, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, janitors, security officers, ticket-takers, de-icers and wheelchair attendants.

The ordinance states licensed contractors must pay workers at least $13.45 an hour starting next July 1, and raise the wage in proportion to the consumer price index every subsequent year. That gives them a leg up over Chicago’s minimum wage, which recently was raised to $11 an hour as the city gradually steps toward $13 by 2019.

Tipped workers like wheelchair attendants would get $1 more than the city’s tipped minimum wage, which currently is $5.95.

Contractors also would have to establish “labor peace agreements” with any union that asks, which means that the union would agree not to picket or call strikes and the company would agree not to resist organizing efforts. Such agreements don’t require an employer to recognize a union or enter into a collective bargaining agreement, but they can smooth the path to a union election.

“It certainly makes it easier to organize workers if they aren’t feeling threatened,” said Izabela Miltko-Ivkovich, spokeswoman for SEIU Local 1, which was behind several strikes and protests at O’Hare over the last two years.

The ordinance is opposed by Airlines for America, an airline advocacy group that counts United and American Airlines among its members. In a letter to Chicago’s Department of Aviation, the group argued that the labor peace provision violates federal labor law and is “ambiguous, internally inconsistent, and provides virtually no guidance regarding implementation.” In addition, “there is no policy or economic justification for establishing a separate minimum wage for just one small group of private sector employees working for one industry at two locations in the city.”

Other airports abide by airport-specific compensation requirements, including San Francisco; Seattle; Minneapolis; LaGuardia and JFK in New York; and Newark, N.J. Chicago modeled its ordinance after Los Angeles’ airport law, which contains a labor peace provision, because it withstood a legal challenge, SEIU said.

“This is about ensuring the highest standard and most efficient operations at Midway and O’Hare,” the mayor’s office said in a statement Thursday.

It is also about politics as SEIU, the massive union behind the Fight for $15 campaign, appeals to elected officials to advance worker interests and reach the growing segment of low-wage workers it would like to convert into members.

“They are using political maneuvering to gain access to a new labor market,” said Bob Bruno, labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. SEIU says 110,000 airport workers have won raises since it began its national airport campaign in 2012, and 22,000 have joined an SEIU union.

Emanuel’s ordinance came as another proposal to lift wages for airport workers, introduced in January, stalled in committee. Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, in late June threatened to invoke a rule that would force that ordinance to the full Council for a vote, where he believed it had enough support to pass even without the mayor’s blessing. The next day SEIU issued a press release announcing it was having positive discussions with the mayor’s administration and Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 40th, chairman of the Workforce Development and Audit Committee, on legislation.

The Workforce and Aviation committees approved the mayor’s ordinance swiftly last week.

Pawar, a Democratic candidate for governor, said the issue is personal to him. His first internship while in graduate school involved working with refugees, many of whom worked at the airport, and he heard from them about low pay and alleged abuses such as wage theft.

“I told myself that if I was ever in a position to do something about this, I would,” said Pawar, who last year supported the union as it announced it had filed 80 complaints accusing O’Hare airport contractors of more than $1 million in wage theft, which can occur when people work off the clock or when employers don’t compensate tipped employees whose gratuities don’t get them to standard minimum wage.

“I believe, once this passes, that this will be one of the greatest victories for airport workers in the country,” Pawar said.

If workers unionize and are able to bargain for health benefits, paid leave, performance bonuses and other improvements, it would be a boon to an economy that has seen a decline in decent-paying middle-class jobs, Bruno said.

“They represent the growing sector of our economy, and something has to happen to lift them into the middle class,” he said. “If these workers don’t become middle class, then we will continue to see sluggish growth, we will see wages flatten out, we will have a seriously hollowed-out economy.”

Many airport jobs used to fetch decent middle-class wages and benefits, but that started to change in the 1980s and ’90s as airlines started to outsource the jobs to third-party contractors that paid the lowest wage people were willing to take, said Robert Mann, an airline industry consultant based in New York.

The change was driven by industry deregulation, competitive pressure from low-cost airlines and other economic shocks that prompted airlines to cut costs, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and airline restructurings, Mann said. Between 2002 and 2012, the outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled, while hourly wages declined by 45 percent, from $19 to $10.60 (in 2012 dollars), according to a report from the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

But while contracting out the work saves airlines money, it also leads to higher turnover and service gaps, Mann said.

“If you try to work the ramp in Chicago in the winter, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s dangerous, especially at night,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to earn money indoors, you take that.”

Alvarenga, the cabin cleaner at O’Hare, said she joined the SEIU effort because her loyalty was not met with the respect she felt she had earned.

Alvarenga, 42, came to Chicago on a fiance visa in 2005 to join her now-husband, Saturnino, who had been her childhood neighbor in El Salvador. She got the job cleaning airplanes that same year after seeing an ad in the newspaper.

She started at minimum wage but earned a 25-cent raise each year, and was making $9.50 an hour when a new cleaning contractor took over in 2010. The new contractor, Prospect Airport Services, told the workers their wages would be reduced to $9, and that if they didn’t want it they could quit, she said. Most people stayed, she said, because they needed the paycheck and worried they might not find something else.

“It made me furious,” Alvarenga said, noting that her wage has risen to $11.50 not because of raises, but because the city raised its minimum wage.

Des Plaines-based Prospect Airport Services did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think what we need most is a union that sees the injustices and stops the abuses, more than anything against the Hispanics,” Alvarenga said, “because the Hispanics are those that are most discriminated against, and if they don’t speak English it’s worse.”

As she sat in her living room on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Alvarenga said she has dreamed of what she will do with the higher wage once the city approves the ordinance. She and her husband live with two of their three children and a yappy Chihuahua mix named Pepito in a tidy home on an otherwise industrial street, beside a parking lot for city garbage trucks.

Her first priority is to establish a savings account for her new baby, due to arrive this month, and help her other three other children — aged 21, 18 and 16 — go to good colleges.

“That’s the best inheritance I can give them, so they can get a career that allows them to support themselves,” she said.

She also wants to get on an airplane herself and take a vacation for the first time in four years. She plans to go to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

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