How the DNC Avoided a Philly Airport Worker Strike

(Photo: AP/Matt Slocum)

Travelers walk through the Philadelphia International Airport on May 27, 2016.

For all the discord and angry protests at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week, organizers should at least be grateful that most delegates arrived without incident. Had the city’s airport workers not narrowly averted a strike on Sunday, things could have been even more chaotic still, with stranded delegates unable to land in Philadelphia.

In the week leading up to the Democratic National Convention, it had looked all but certain that airport workers at the Philadelphia International Airport would go on strike, creating a travel nightmare for thousands of delegates who had been set to arrive by plane.

Airport workers had staged actions and protests throughout the week, and had voted to walk off the job during the convention itself. The workers have complained of low wages, meager benefits, and retaliation against airport employees who were trying to organize a union with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ. These workers, who include baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, and cabin cleaners, are employed by a web of subcontractors hired by the airport’s major airlines, most notably American Airlines.

When SEIU officials announced late Friday that workers would not strike after all, and that American Airlines would sit down this week with the union to talk about opening a fair path to unionization for subcontracted workers, it represented a major labor victory. It also brought up the question: What happened?

Philadelphia’s airport organizing effort stretches back several years, and has become a national SEIU campaign. But the looming strike put Democratic party officials in a tight spot. In a party closely allied with the labor movement, the SEIU has long played a powerful role. But party leaders understandably didn’t want a major worker dispute disrupting the convention.

Democrats found a way out by turning up the heat on American Airlines to require its subcontractors to take the high road. Three prominent Pennsylvania Democrats—Governor Tom Wolf, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and Representative Bob Casey—along with an army of other prominent DNC delegates, made it known that there would be consequences if American, the largest airline at the Philadelphia International Airport, didn’t sit down and talk.

At a Monday press conference on raising the minimum wage, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Prospect that the California Democratic Party had sent out an email to its entire delegation calling on its members to stand with the striking airport workers, and suggesting that one way they could do that would be to fly into nearby Newark, New Jersey, instead of into Philadelphia.

“We wanted California to be behind this as well,” said Garcetti, who has worked with airlines at the Los Angeles airport to increase wages and promote unionization. Garcetti himself reached out to American Airlines officials to argue that if they could make it work in Los Angeles, they could make it work in Philadelphia and across the country.

“When you have an entire set of delegates and elected officials who are appealing to a major corporation, who in turn listens to that and then decides to sit down with the unions to figure a path for workers to exercise their collective bargaining rights, [and] that process actually works—it gave us a tremendous amount of hope,” 32BJ President Hector Figueroa told the Prospect at the press conference. “But it would not have happened without the workers showing their courage to take action.”

Philadelphia’s airport worker organizing campaign—led by Local 32BJ and the faith-based group known as POWER—began around 2012, at a time when the city was poised to invest millions in its airport. Organizers discovered that some subcontracted workers were making as little as $2 or $3 an hour. Eventually, over the course of a two-year lobbying effort, they got the city to enact a $12-per-hour minimum wage for airport workers. Still, some subcontractors, organizers say, have not abided by local wage laws—and have been illegally retaliating against workers seeking to form a union.

The purpose of last week’s threatened strike was to put muscle behind their call for a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union.

“We recognize that Philadelphia is a big plantation,” says Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of POWER. The majority of the airport’s low-wage service workers are black, and many are living in poverty. “We’ve been calling out that tension because there’s a real racial dynamic to the poverty in this city,” Royster adds. “We’re not putting up with this anymore. This is a moral issue, it’s got to be changed, and business has to do better.”

Airport workers, including Onetha McKnight, who has worked as a wheelchair attendant at the airport for nine years, hailed the decision by American Airlines to sit down with the union. She said she became active as an organizer after hearing too often about how her co-workers were being mistreated. When Local 32BJ began its airport campaign in Philadelphia, McKnight brought the union’s message back to her colleagues. Seeing national political leaders rally to the workers’ sides, she says, demonstrates just how far the organizers and their movement have come.

“We’ve had a lot of victories along the way, but it’s been a long, uphill ride,” says McKnight. “But this gives us hope.”

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