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Mihalopoulos: Airport workers wish they could have detained Rahm

Workers and SEIU representatives leave a press conference at O'Hare Airport on Nov. 21, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is facing a City Council showdown on a long-stalled airport living wage ordinance. Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), a Democratic candidate for governor, has filed a notice with the city’s clerk’s office declaring his intention to try next week to discharge the ordinance from the Committee on Workforce Development. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

When a crowd gathered to rally for the rights of immigrants and refugees detained at O’Hare Airport last month, a casually dressed Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the weekend protest at the international terminal.

It was easy for Emanuel to make common cause with those detained under the presidential executive order that’s since been blocked by the courts. President Donald Trump got 13 percent of the vote in Chicago. The struggling mayor scored some easy political points by positioning himself with the resistance to Trump.

But Emanuel’s appearance at the Terminal 5 protest brought the mayor into the workplace of another group of immigrants and refugees who say they also deserve support from Emanuel — but aren’t getting it.

For years now, workers at the city’s airports have complained they’re victims of wage theft and are paid poorly even when they get all that’s promised. Some contractors have settled federal lawsuits, including the janitorial company the city has paid about $100 million over the past five years.

OPINION

The politically powerful service employees’ union, which has feuded with Emanuel on a variety of issues, is taunting Emanuel to show he cares as much about the airport workers as he does for the detainees.

The labor group has paid for phone banks in the past week. They’re calling voters and asking if they’d like to be patched through to the mayor’s office.

“Are you aware that Mayor Rahm Emanuel refuses to stand with immigrant and refugee workers at Chicago’s airports?” the voter is asked, according to a transcript of the calls. “These workers are facing daily harassment, surveillance, retaliation and arbitrary firings. Please stay on the line and tell Mayor Emanuel it is time to protect immigrant and refugee workers at Chicago’s airports.”

Thirty-four aldermen have signed on to co-sponsor a proposal that would guarantee better pay for thousands of airport workers in low-wage posts. A spokesman for the mayor was noncommittal, saying only that “we will review” the ordinance.

The workers want Emanuel to use his leverage to pressure the airlines, which hire contractors to perform a lot of manual labor.

“If you’re a janitor or security guard at Chicago’s airports, you’re likely to be an immigrant or refugee, and you’re likely relegated to poverty wages,” says Jerry Morrison, assistant to the president of Service Employees International Union Local 1. “Are the airports an economic engine for business or for working people, too?”

City spokesman Grant Klinzman said the Emanuel administration will “fully investigate” wage-theft allegations.

“Mayor Emanuel has worked hard to protect and expand the rights of workers at Chicago’s airports and across the city,” Klinzman said. “The mayor championed raising Chicago’s minimum wage.”

But a newly published investigation by the Chicago Reporter found lax enforcement of the minimum-wage ordinance. The city has not yet punished any company under the ordinance that took effect in July 2015, the Reporter revealed.

Azadeh Amadi, an Iranian immigrant who pushes passengers in a wheelchair at O’Hare International Terminal 5, shares Emanuel’s low opinion of Trump’s travel ban, which targeted her homeland and six other Muslim-majority countries.

Amadi, 37, says she came to this country four years ago through a visa lottery. Under the terms of her permission to move here, she cannot receive public aid, despite making low wages.

She said she wishes Emanuel would help increase wages for her and her co-workers and she was unimpressed by the recent dinner he hosted for young immigrants.

“We don’t need dinner,” Amadi said. “The mayor can change the rules to help immigrants make more money, if he wants to.”

For immigrants and refugees, getting into the country is just the first hurdle. Emanuel could do more to show his concern extends to their wellbeing after they clear customs.