The people who clean the airplanes we fly, scrub the airport restrooms we use, and do the heavy lifting to get us from place to place can be almost invisible. You might not meet them, but you’ll notice if their jobs are not done. They are the janitors, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and wheelchair attendants — and the lowest-paid workers at the 2nd busiest airport in the United States
Thousands of people work in low-paying, manual jobs at O’Hare Airport. These used to be good jobs with good wages, the workers directly employed by American or United Airlines. But now, thanks to subcontracting by the airlines, few of these jobs offer a true livable wage or affordable health benefits.
Passenger and aviation services at O’Hare are provided by companies that contract with the airlines or the City of Chicago Department of Aviation. The workers who take these jobs often are parents who support full households. In fact, the median age is 40 years old; these are not young people looking for their first part-time job.
We have heard stories of the workers being cheated by employers, denied wages they have rightfully earned and fired for attending union meetings. The legal claims they have filed are piling up, but often go ignored by our own city government. Workers have also filed safety violations with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, with no response.
As aldermen, we can’t sit by and let this injustice go on under our own roof. So what do we do about it?
First, we support the workers, who have, at great personal risk, gotten themselves organized with the help of the Service Employees International Union Local 1.
Next, we as aldermen must use the tools available to us to force a change. At the airports, the way to do that is through the leases the major airlines have with the city for the use of the terminals. Right now, for the first time in three decades, the airlines are negotiating new lease agreements. So in City Council, we are seizing this opportunity to make sure the airlines address — right in the terms of the lease — the challenges these low-wage workers face.
With a broad coalition of aldermen from communities all across the city, we’re advancing an ordinance to require that the new lease agreement guarantee the airport workers the same fair pay standards, known as “prevailing wage,” as workers in other service and trade sectors across the city.
The new law is important not just because it’ll improve working conditions and the quality of life for airport workers. It also will ensure labor peace at the airports — and that’s good for everyone, from vacationers and business travelers, to the airlines, to taxpayers.
The airport generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for our city, yet the workers who shoulder the dirty work are treated to what can only be called abuse.
In 2015, despite a combined $12.1 billion in profits, American and United Airlines paid no federal income tax. The airport enterprise fund in Chicago had a $250 million budget surplus. Bottom line: They can afford to pay the workers according to a fair standard. And study after study has shown that increasing pay for low-wage workers is a boon to the local economy as a whole.
With this new law, we’re sending a clear message to the administration and the airlines: the next lease agreement must not repeat the sins of the past. It must include and enforce labor peace and the prevailing wage rate as set forth by the standards guaranteed other workers for passenger service workers, to ensure this abuse ends once and for all.
As we enter the new presidential administration, the rights of working people are under attack. Chicago must not allow another 30 years, as set in the current United Airlines lease, of abusive and negligent management practices at the airport or anywhere else. The city must take a stand now to make sure we do not pass on a legacy of worsening conditions and injustice for those who have so much responsibility, and who work so hard to keep our airports clean and safe.
Roderick T. Sawyer is alderman of Chicago’s sixth ward. Susan Sadlowski Garza is alderman of the tenth ward.