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Airport contract employees score first union pacts

SEIU Local 1 has something to show for the protests they organized in 2016: the first union contracts with two major contractors that guarantee 2,200 employees higher wages and benefits.

Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, joins O’Hare Airport employees on Wednesday at a City Hall news conference to celebrate union contracts that guarantee higher wages and benefits to 2,200 employees of Scrub, Inc. and Prospect Airport Services.
Fran Spielman/ Chicago Sun-Times

Nearly three years ago, O’Hare International Airport employees pressed their case for higher wages by launching a strike timed to disrupt Thanksgiving week travel.

That was followed by a series of O’Hare protests to press their pay demands and claim $1.2 million in “wage theft” from airport employees. The protests were orchestrated by SEIU Local 1, which was seeking to organize the workers.

Now, Local 1 has something to show for it: first-ever union contracts with two major contractors — Scrub Inc. and Prospect Airport Services — that guarantee 2,200 employees higher wages and benefits.

Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, said the first of what he hopes will be a series of union contracts at O’Hare and Midway would not have been possible without the ordinance pushed through the City Council by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel two years ago to avoid a floor fight on the volatile issue of an “airport living wage.”

Workers and union representatives at O’Hare International Airport in 2016.
Workers and union representatives at O’Hare International Airport during their 2016 labor dispute.
Getty Images

SEIU Local 1 has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

That ordinance tied licenses for airport contractors to a “labor peace agreement” that allowed baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, aircraft maintenance workers and security guards to organize without interference.

It prohibited contractors from preventing those workers from “engaging in strikes, picketing, work stoppages, boycotts or other economic interference.”

It mandated that those airline contractors and sub-contractors pay employees at least $13.45 an hour beginning on July 1, 2018, with annual increases after that tied to the cost of living. Employees whose wages include gratuities were to be paid $1 an hour more than the $5.95 an hour minimum wage that applies to tipped employees.

“It’s very complicated … to organize workers at airports. They’re not under the standard National Labor Relations Act. That’s why we had to use our [political] power to create a process in the city … where workers could be guaranteed that they could organize free of intimidation and that contractors would bargain in good faith,” Balanoff said.

“Without the ordinance, the companies would have continued not to sit down with the workers. … Some of them would have continued to intimidate workers. … Now, these workers have a process that they control to say, `No. We’re gonna use that process to stop this exploitation.’”

The affected employees serve as cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, security officers, cargo agents and wheelchair attendants. Scrub employees are at O’Hare only; Prospect has employees at both O’Hare and Midway.

They now will receive roughly $8,000 more over the life of their three-year contracts in addition to increased health benefits, vacation time and five additional holidays at time-and-a-half pay.

Unions under the SEIU umbrella were among County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s biggest and most powerful supporters.

But the SEIU Illinois State Council recently made the switch to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and contributed $100,000 to the new mayor.

“She’s made it very clear that she wants to move a $15 minimum wage much quicker here in the city. She wants to reform City Council. These are all things that we support. And we certainly hope that she’s gonna live by those beliefs,” Balanoff said.

SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff.
SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff said a city ordinance passed two years ago was key to winning fair contracts for some O’Hare Airport workers: “Without the ordinance, the companies would have continued not to sit down with the workers. … Some of them would have continued to intimidate workers.”
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Lightfoot is taking her time to forge a compromise on a so-called fair workweek ordinance that would guarantee employees predictable schedules.

Is Balanoff worried that process will take too long?

“I always want everything to happen right away. But I understand the political process sometimes takes time,” he said.

Three years ago, organized labor’s City Council allies and unions seeking to represent airport workers claimed $1.2 million in “wage theft” from hundreds of airport employees.

The alleged “theft” by private contractors included 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 or before and after their regular shifts.

United Maintenance Co., a clout-heavy janitorial contractor, lent credence to the wage theft claims by agreeing to shell out nearly $850,000 to settle a federal wage-theft lawsuit brought by its O’Hare employees.