Emanuel proposes raise, right to organize for airport employees
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Nearly 8,000 contract employees at O’Hare Airport would be paid “no less than $13.45-an-hour” and guaranteed the right to join unions under a mayoral plan embraced by organized labor.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel followed through on his promise to tie licenses for airport contractors to a “labor peace agreement” that allows baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, aircraft maintenance workers and security guards to organize without interference.
But the ordinance the mayor introduced goes beyond prohibiting contractors from interfering and preventing those workers from “engaging in strikes, picketing, work stoppages, boycotts or other economic interference.”
It would mandate those airline contractors and sub-contractors to pay their employees no less than $13.45-an-hour beginning on July 1, 2018, with annual increases every year after that tied to the cost-of-living.
LIVING WAGE: Emanuel averts airport showdown
Employees whose wages include gratuities would have to be paid $1-an-hour more than the $5.95-an-hour minimum wage that applies to tipped employees.
“Nothing shall impede licensed employees from bargaining collectively with representatives of their own choosing to establish wages or conditions of work in excess of the minimum standards,” the ordinance states.
Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the Emanuel floor leader who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development, said the ordinance is patterned after a licensing plan at the Los Angeles airport that has already withstood a court challenge.
“We have set a [wage] floor. And we think that helps all of the workers at O’Hare,” O’Connor said Thursday.
“To the extent that the union can come in and enhance that, we have laid the table for that to take place. It’s not a city function to do the bargaining, but to make sure we have it where it can go on and that the airport runs in a smooth way.”
Jerry Morrison, assistant to the president of Service Employees International Union Local 1, praised Emanuel for going beyond the terms of a long-stalled airport living wage ordinance that was nearly brought to a vote on the City Council floor over the mayor’s objections.
“We’re excited that the mayor was willing to take a stand like that,” Morrison said.
Morrison stressed that there is “no guarantee of union membership.” SEIU Local 1 still must organize airport contract employees and hold union elections.
But the mayor’s ordinance “lays important groundwork,” by establishing “minimum standards” that the city, as the operator of O’Hare and Midway, will insist on, Morrison said.
“There will be some of these contractors that will be resistant. But the nice thing about a labor peace [agreement] is that these guys can’t go out and run multi-million dollar anti-union campaigns,” Morrison said.
“People will join a union 80-to-90 percent of the time if there’s fair, free and open elections and there’s not an anti-union smear campaign by an employer.”
SEIU Local 1 is among a group of investors that recently purchased the Sun-Times.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), a Democratic candidate for governor, was the driving force behind the airport living wage ordinance.
He was also the prime-mover behind the threat to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire by forcing a vote on the City Council floor.
On Thursday, Pawar called the mayor’s ordinance “one of the biggest victories in recent years” for organized labor.
“There are thousands of people who work for contractors of the airlines who aren’t making a living wage. Who don’t get basic human dignities like paid sick leave or breaks,” Pawar said.
“We are a world-class city [with] a world-class airport. And we should treat everyone — whether they’re travelers or workers who clean and cater the airplanes and push the wheelchairs — the same as someone who is traveling first class on United.”
Pawar credited Emanuel with exercising the “political will” to “lift up” airport workers by giving them the “space and framework to organize.”
But Pawar also said the mayor had little choice but to go along to avoid what would have been an embarrassing showdown and almost certain City Council defeat.
“We had the votes on the floor. … Doing the right thing is also good politics. My guess is he recognizes that,” Pawar said.
Pawar said the episode could have been avoided if major airlines whose airport use agreements are about to expire had “come to the table from the beginning.”
“We are going to give the airlines a lucrative deal in the next year or two and that’s great. But everyone should share in that success and that includes workers,” the alderman said.
Organized labor’s City Council allies and unions seeking to represent airport workers have held a series of O’Hare protests to press their pay demands and claim $1.2 million in “wage theft” from hundreds of airport employees.
The alleged “theft” by private contractors includes everything from failing to make up the difference for tipped employees whose gratuities leave them short of the city’s minimum wage to failing to pay employees who work through their lunch breaks and before and after their regular shifts.
United Maintenance Co. Inc., a clout-heavy janitorial contractor nearing the end of a five-year O’Hare deal, has lent credence to the wage theft claims by agreeing last year to shell out nearly $850,000 to settle a federal wage-theft lawsuit brought by its O’Hare employees.