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Airport wage hike advances over airline objections

Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th), chairman of the City Council's Workforce Development Committee, and Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd) share a light-hearted moment before Monday's joint committee hearing. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Nearly 8,000 contract employees at O’Hare and Midway airports would be paid “no less than” $13.45-an-hour and guaranteed their right to join unions, under a mayoral plan that sailed through a joint City Council committee Monday over the objections of major airlines.

In an Aug. 25 letter to Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans and Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel, Airlines for America argued that the cost of living is the “same for all citizens, regardless of where in the city they work” and the minimum wage “should also be uniform.”

“…There is no legal or policy justification for imposing a higher minimum wage on a few thousand workers who provide services to one industry at two locations,” Robert J. DeLucia, vice president of labor and employment for Airlines for America, wrote.

“Whatever that rate is, it should apply fairly to all employees and employers…Creating a patchwork of minimum wages that favor some employees over others is bad public policy that hurts airlines, our partners and the passengers who rely on them.”

DeLucia further argued that the city’s “status as an airport operator/proprietor does not give it authority to regulate private labor relations.”

Deputy Corporation Counsel Diane Pezanoski, nevertheless, insisted that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ordinance was on solid legal ground. That’s because it “comes pretty much directly from a licensing and training program in Los Angeles” that airlines there challenged and lost.

LAX “wanted efficient and effective operations at the airport,” Pezanoski said.

“It was not acting as a regulator. It was not trying to impose its own view of labor relations on other companies. We think ours will withstand a legal challenge as well based on that same argument.”

With that assurance, members of the City Council’s Aviation and Workforce Development Committees approved the mayor’s plan, to the delight of Tom Balanoff, president Service Employees International Union Local 1.

SEIU Local 1 is among a group of investors that recently purchased the Sun-Times. The union has been attempting to organize airport employees, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, aircraft maintenance workers and security guards.

“This ordinance will help advance safety, cleanliness and security at both airports. It’ll do this by creating a more stable workforce that helps worker retention by creating better pay, fair pay and decent working conditions,” Balanoff said.

The mayor’s plan ties licenses for airport contractors to a “labor peace agreement” that allows thousands of O’Hare and Midway employees to organize without interference.

But it goes beyond prohibiting contractors from interfering and preventing those workers from “engaging in strikes, picketing, work stoppages, boycotts or other economic interference.”

It mandates 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

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.