8,000 Airport Workers in Chicago Just Won a Wage Raise and the Right to a Union

CHICAGO—Eight thousand workers at Chicago’s two airports have scored a major victory in their two-year campaign for higher wages and a union.

On Wednesday, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring private contractors—who employ O’Hare and Midway’s baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants, janitors, security officers, ticket collectors and de-icers—to abide by new labor standards in order to be licensed by the city. Most employees of airport contractors make low wages, receive few benefits and lack job security.

The ordinance will require contractors to pay a minimum wage of $13.45 starting July 1, 2018, well above Chicago’s current minimum of $11 an hour. Though the Illinois General Assembly recently passed a bill that would have raised the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last month.

“I’m a single mom with three kids and two grandkids. This raise will help contribute to supporting my family,” Darlene Navarro Montañez, an O’Hare janitor employed by the contractor Scrubs, told In These Times through an interpreter. “Eleven dollars an hour is just not enough.”

“With the raise, besides helping my family more, I could put bigger payments into paying back my student debt,” said Danny Rodriguez, a 24-year-old wheelchair attendant, security officer and shift lead at O’Hare.

The new law also stipulates that contractors must enter into “labor peace agreements” with any union seeking to organize their employees. Under such an agreement, the employer must remain neutral during a union organizing drive and certification election. In return, the union promises not to engage in “economically disruptive” actions like strikes and boycotts. By prohibiting employer interference, such agreements dramatically improve the likelihood of unionization.

“The next step is getting the union,” said Navarro Montañez, 37, who came to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico in search of a better life. “I want to see the company and the airport respect the employees.”

With a union contract, one of Rodriguez’s first priorities would be to get his employer, Prospect, to allow paid time off for family emergencies. Under the employer’s current policy, he fears getting fired whenever he has to miss work unexpectedly to look after his elderly grandmother, who requires 24-hour care.

“I have to risk losing my job for being a responsible grandson,” Rodriguez said. “[Prospect’s policy] needs to be reworked to make sure it’s fairer for everyone. Not just for me taking care of my grandma, but other people who are parents or guardians.”

The workers will likely seek to join SEIU Local 1. Since September 2015, Local 1 has led the efforts that resulted in this week’s ordinance, as part of SEIU’s national Airport Workers United and Fight for $15 campaigns.

“Even though we won this ordinance, this fight is not over,” Rodriguez insisted. “We’re going to keep fighting for what needs to be done. Once we finally get this union and get this contract, then I could say we finally had our voice heard.”

Read the full story, including interviews with airport workers, over at In These Times!

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