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Aldermen throw airport employees a life raft

Two aldermen want to protect employees when new contracts for concessions at O'Hare (shown) and Midway airports are awarded. | Sun-Times Library

O’Hare and Midway Airport employees would have a life raft of sorts when the city finally gets around to awarding lucrative concession contracts, thanks to protections advanced Tuesday at the behest of Unite Here Local 1.

Two powerful aldermen convinced the City Council’s Aviation Committee to require airport concessionaires and their sub-contractors to either abide by terms of union contracts already negotiated or give workers the ability to bargain collectively.

The ordinance co-sponsored by Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) and Special Events Committee Chairman Walter Burnett (27th) prohibits “strikes, picketing, work stoppages boycotts or other economic interference with the business” of O’Hare and Midway concessionaires for the duration of the contract.

Solis acknowledged that he agreed to champion the safety net after a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by United Here Local 1.

“The airport is getting expanded. There are a lot of new concessions coming in. And we don’t want the peace we’ve had to be disrupted,” Solis said.

“My main issue is the service to our fliers and the protection of revenue to the city. If that’s gonna be jeopardized, I’m gonna do whatever I can to protect the city and protect workers. The work force in our city is important. They are the ones who are raising their families and making our city great. We want to have a city that considers its labor force a priority.”

Burnett added, “We’re just trying to keep peace so patrons who utilize the airports don’t have any challenges when they come in. This is just a labor peace agreement so they won’t have any hassles or challenges. Everyone can continue to work. The city and the airports can continue to make money. And patrons who come in and out don’t have negative impressions.”

Former Local 1 President Harry Tamarin and his successor, Karen Kent, attended Tuesday’s committee meeting, but refused to comment on the ordinance.

HMS Host, which controls 60 percent of the food and beverage concessions at O’Hare, is operating on a month-to-month contract.

So are most of the concessionaires at Midway Airport, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel grounded his privatization plan after one of only two remaining bidders left the runway.

The concession logjam is expected to break after the Feb. 24 mayoral election and after Emanuel chooses a replacement for now-retired Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino.

Before the gravy train starts rolling, Solis and Burnett wanted to make certain that airport employees don’t get the shaft.

Ald. Danny Solis says it is only fair to make sure that airport employees keep wages and benefits they bargained for. | Sun-Times Library

Solis said the ordinance is patterned after similar guarantees in place at airports in Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C.

He argued that the protections are particularly important in the wake of the City Council’s decision to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $13-an-hour by 2019.

Last fall, Emanuel signed an executive order requiring city contractors to pay their employees $13 an hour — 9 percent more than the $11.93 currently required — and broadened the “living wage” umbrella to include airport concessionaires.

It was a surprise turnaround for a mayor who had spent nearly four years sandbagging an ordinance that would force airport concessionaires to pay their 1,500 employees a living wage.

Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) introduced the airport living wage ordinance in 2011 to coincide with a major overhaul of concessions at O’Hare Airport’s international terminal proposed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and pushed through by Emanuel in the first test of the new mayor’s City Council clout.

Munoz was surprised and delighted by Emanuel’s about-face on the issue.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that the seven-month search for a new aviation commissioner has been stuck in neutral, in part, because of the comparatively low, $186,576-a-year salary.

The newspaper reported that the search committee headed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, one of Emanuel’s closest friends in politics, has hired an executive search firm, at a cost of $100,000, to jump-start the selection process.