Air cargo workers at O’Hare strike for a day

The employees accuse Swissport International of perpetuating unsafe working conditions and threatening a pro-union worker.

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Chris Enterline speaks during a one-day walkout of Swissport International workers Thursday at O’Hare Airport. On the left (with sunglasses) is Genie Kastrup, president of Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union.

Chris Enterline speaks during a one-day walkout of Swissport International workers Thursday at O’Hare Airport. On the left (with sunglasses) is Genie Kastrup, president of Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union.

Service Employees International Union, Local 1

Air cargo workers for Swissport International staged a one-day walkout Thursday at O’Hare Airport, alleging unsafe working conditions and company retaliation for favoring union membership.

The public demonstration near Terminals 1 and 2 included Chris Enterline, a cargo transport agent, who said supervisors have harangued him for union activity. “They pulled me aside and told me this is going to be a career ender for me. I’ve had co-workers tell me to watch my back,” said Enterline, a Northwest Side resident in his first year on the job.

About 20 workers were involved in the walkout, said Bailey Koch, spokesperson for Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union. The local supported the effort but has not organized the Swissport employees.

Koch said Swissport Cargo has about 400 air cargo employees at O’Hare. She said the walkout was part of job actions targeting Swissport across the country during the busy pre-holiday shipping period, with similar one-day strikes in Boston and Newark and protests at about a dozen other airports.

Last month, SEIU helped the workers file complaints of unsafe conditions with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. There was no immediate comment from OSHA.

Enterline said inexperienced workers repeatedly deal with heavy equipment that lacks safety features. Workers also have complained about no heat in the warehouse and offices.

“I really want to make the workplace safer so people will stay on the job. The turnover is incredibly high,” Enterline said. “If you work for Swissport any length of time, you will get hurt.” He said he loads and unloads overseas flights, as well as Amazon planes with domestic destinations.

Swissport, a major player in international air cargo, denied engaging in unfair labor practices, said it provides competitive wages and benefits and abides by all operating permit requirements. At O’Hare, that includes a labor peace agreement that allows SEIU unfettered access to workers for organizing purposes, a spokesman said.

He also said the company has established a “best-in-class” health and safety record. Swissport said it has operations in nearly 300 airports and serves one aircraft every 31 seconds.

“Instead of listening to our voices and creating a safer work environment, Swissport Cargo put their energy into silencing us,” said another worker, Miguel Sanchez, in a statement provided by Local 1. “That is why we walked off the job today—Swissport Cargo needs to value us, our work and our voice.”

A city ordinance enacted with SEIU’s support requires that service workers at O’Hare and Midway airports earn at least $17 an hour, increasing to $18 an hour next March 1.

SEIU said poverty-level wages often apply to airport service workers outside Chicago. The union has called on Congress to pass the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act. It would require airports receiving federal funds to certify that pay and benefit levels meet prevailing local standards, as determined by the U.S. Labor Department.

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