Marlen Garcia: A ‘moral obligation’ to pay airport workers fairly

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SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff has long complained about the treatment of workers at the city’s airports. Here he is shown at a 2002 rally outside O’Hare International Airport to highlight the plight of the security workers at both O’Hare and Midway airports. | Sun-Times file photo

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The major airlines operating at O’Hare International Airport should make sure their contractors aren’t ripping off low-level workers such as janitors and baggage handlers. It’s the right thing to do.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel also should see to it that workers, including airplane cabin cleaners, aren’t being forced to work through breaks, start work early and stay late — with no pay for those hours. He should demand that wheelchair attendants be brought to minimum wage when tips don’t get them there.

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Some nonunion workers who say companies are skimming wages filed complaints with the Illinois Department of Labor and the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. The latter oversees enforcement of Chicago’s $10.50 minimum wage. The Service Employees International Union Local 1, which wants to unionize the workers, is leading the effort.

But the city gives no indication it’s willing to go to bat for these workers even though some have sued contractors over claims of wage theft. Some companies have settled lawsuits; a few cases are ongoing.

Maybe the threat of a strike will get the airlines’ and mayor’s attention. A rolling strike vote is coming within weeks, SEIU Local 1 spokeswoman Izabela Miltko-Ivkovich told me. If workers vote for a strike, it could come any day, she added.

For the biggest effect, and to embarrass the mayor and airlines, they could time it for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“If we don’t do something, they will strike and I believe they should,” Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) told me. “We’re talking about 4,000 workers with families to support.”

A few weeks ago, Pawar introduced in the City Council an order to revoke business licenses for contractors Scrub Inc. of Chicago; United Maintenance of Chicago; Prospect Airport Services in Des Plaines; and concessionaire Lott Management of Frankfort. All of these companies have been accused of wage theft.

But Pawar’s order quickly was buried in the Rules Committee. A resolution he proposed to hold hearings on allegations of wage theft is unlikely to go far.

O’Hare workers might be motivated to strike because that’s how some 1,000 baggage handlers and airplane cabin cleaners employed by contractors at Philadelphia International Airport made progress last summer. They voted to strike during the Democratic National Convention.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf brought together American Airlines and a local of the SEIU on behalf of workers who want to make $15 an hour and join the union. The strike was averted; talks are still ongoing.

SEIU also wants $15 an hour for Chicago airport workers. I’m sure many would settle for a smaller raise and protections so their time and wages don’t get stolen.

I can’t predict how a strike vote would go. Many of the workers are refugees and immigrants who usually are afraid to make waves. Then, too, a group of refugees I spoke to last month sounded pretty fed up.

Pawar believes the airlines should be motivated to protect workers. Lease agreements for new gates will come up in the next 18 months, he said. The Council will have leverage against the airlines.

“Why can’t we talk about people making $10.50 an hour who have no basic protections, whose employers are stealing from them?” Pawar asked. “We have a moral obligation to do this. It isn’t too much to ask.”


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