All posts by juneleffler

Hundreds of O’Hare airport workers strike, demand $15 an hour

By June Leffler

After the brunt of Thanksgiving travel, O’Hare workers pulled off a one-day strike to demand $15 an hour and safer working conditions.

The Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department said there were no disruptions or arrests during Tuesday’s action at O’Hare.

O’Hare workers announced the strike last Monday, just days before Thanksgiving. Tom Balanoff, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, said the workers decided not to strike during Thanksgiving so they wouldn’t disrupt the holiday for their co-workers and passengers.

“Next time we have to strike we will shut down this airport,” said Balanoff.

Ron Jeffers went on strike to protest low wages.
Ron Jeffers went on strike to protest low wages.(June Leffler/MEDILL)

Over 500 O’Hare airport baggage handlers, janitors, wheelchair attendants and security officers went on the one-day strike. SEIU Local 1 is helping the non-union workers organize, though there is no vote to unionize yet.

Roughly 1,500 of the workers and their allies rallied outside O’Hare’s departure  platform near terminals 2 and 3.

“In English, then Spanish, then Polish,” said one of the workers leading chants. “Yes we can. Sí se puede. Tak możemy.”

O'Hare workers join the Fight for $15.
O’Hare workers join the Fight for $15. (June Leffler/MEDILL)

“It is a right to strike,” said Kisha Rivera, a cabin cleaner with Scrub, Inc. “You can’t let anyone put you down for doing a job they wouldn’t do themselves.”

The strike coincides with the Fight for 15’s national day of action. In 340 cities, fast food, airport, hospital and other workers protested or went on strike to demand higher wages. The day of action commemorates four years since the Fight for $15 began when hundreds of fast food workers went on strike at a McDonald’s in New York. The workers started the day in Chicago with a protest at a West Town McDonald’s before moving the action to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and then O’Hare.

(Video by Katanga Johnson/Medill)
Police ticketed more than 50 protesters at a West Town McDonald’s  early Tuesday morning, according to  the Chicago Sun-Times.

The airport workers are employed by three contractors: Scrub, Inc., Prospect Airport Services, and AirServ. American Airlines and United Airlines contract with the companies to hire and manage certain employees.

12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas said his father used to work at O’Hare for American Airlines. Cardenas said outsourcing these jobs to middleman companies is partly why wages and benefits have fallen. He said he wants the contractors to be “banned from doing business in this city.”

Aldermen across the city have introduced a proposal to revoke the business licenses of four airline contractors: Prospect Airport Services, United Maintenance, Lott Management and Scrub, Inc.

“The idea in America is that a job provides an opportunity,” said 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, one of the sponsors of the proposal. “These jobs simply subsidize poverty and profits.”

Airport workers have filed complaints and lawsuits against the contractors. Earlier this month, workers filed a complaint with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) against three of the contractors. Workers have also filed wage theft complaints, which the city and state are investigating. The complaints include having employees work off the clock, not providing over-time pay and paying tipped workers less than minimum wage.

O’Hare airport workers went on a one-day strike last March. Diana Petty participated in the last strike, which she said produced no results. Still, she went on strike Tuesday to demand a living wage.

“Some workers are afraid of retaliation,” said Petty. “This company hires a lot of foreigners that don’t want to rock the boat.”

Petty is 58 years old, and has worked for Scrub, Inc. as a janitor for 16 years.

“Since I’ve been working here for 16 years, I should make no less than $16 an hour,” said Petty.

Diana Petty says working at the airport is a form of modern day slavery.
Diana Petty says working at the airport is a form of modern day slavery. (June Leffler/MEDILL)

She works third shift and makes $11.25 an hour. She said she doesn’t get holiday pay and is called into work on her days off.

“There was a sign above the time clock saying employees will receive a holiday lunch and a $25 bonus for coming into work on the [day of the strike],” said Petty. “That’s a slap in the face. Why don’t they offer holiday lunch during the holidays.”

Scrub, Inc. declined to comment.

Other O’Hare workers showed up in solidarity. Transportation Workers Union Local 571 are trying to reopen their union contract with their employer Envoy (formerly American Eagle), a contractor of American Airlines.

Guillermo Bahena of TWU Local 571 said that after American Airlines went bankrupt, the union made concessions for the airline, such as less vacation and holiday pay. Now that American Airlines is profitable again, the workers want to see some of that money.

“We make half of what other American Airlines workers are making,” said Bahena.

Members of the Transportation Workers Union Local 571 stand with fellow O'Hare workers' fight to unionize. (Medill/ June Leffler)
Members of the Transportation Workers Union Local 571 stand with fellow O’Hare workers’ fight to unionize. (June Leffler/MEDILL)

Marie Gauge spoke in support of her fellow O’Hare workers. She is a service passenger agent and a member of the Communications Workers Union. The union is negotiating its first contract with Envoy.

“Contractors as a staple for corporate America are driving everybody’s wages down,” she said. “This shouldn’t be our future.”

Katanga Johnson contributed video for the story

Cold turkey is bad enough. This year Thanksgiving presents the real scare of political cold war

By June Leffler

Bringing up the election is ground zero for a cold war during Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone has a strong, contentious opinion, but it’s better to lay low to avoid total annihilation.

Who hasn’t weighed in on how to deal with potential political discussions this Thanksgiving? Therapists, advice columnists, talk show hosts and their callers, anyone who tweats.

Some groups advocate for #BridgingOurDivides during dinner. That seems too optimistic when most folks want to avoid the discussion entirely. Still, is it even possible to avoid talking about what many have obsessed over since election day?
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Close to Thanksgiving, hundreds of O’Hare workers set to strike

By June Leffler

[Update: On Mon., Nov. 21, SEIU Local 1 announced that the strike has been delayed until after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and is now set for Tues., Nov. 29]

Baggage handlers, custodians, security officers and wheelchair attendants have voted to strike in the next few days, potentially through Thanksgiving weekend. Workers are protesting wage theft, low pay and unsafe work conditions.

“We don’t expect to shut down the airport,” said Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, the union organizing these non-union workers.

Balanoff said there are more than 3,000 of these non-union, contractor-employed workers at O’Hare, and that hundreds of them voted to and will strike. He did not say when the strike would start or how long it would last.

The workers are fighting for $15 an hour and union rights. Balanoff said most of the workers make under $12 an hour.
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A Trump presidency is sobering for ex-offenders

By June Leffler

A week before the presidential election, Lacey Stolzke was released from jail after serving 225 days.

“I was never into politics, because I was so caught up in my drug use.”

At 27 years old, she’s in treatment and living at Grace House, a halfway house for female ex-offenders who are recovering from substance abuse. Now, she said, she’s never been more politically engaged.

“My eyes are open to how the world is changing,” said Stolzke. “Trump is going to make it harder than it already is.”

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Lacey Stolzke wants her seven-year-old son Isaac to learn to respect women, something she believes Trump is incapable of doing. (June Leffler/MEDILL)

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Old boss same as new boss? Eyes on Kim Foxx in the wake of Anita Alvarez

By June Leffler

Favored to handily win the race for Cook County State’s Attorney, Kim Foxx is promising reform in a post-Anita Alvarez era. Yet some voters and activists aren’t letting their guard down, saying they will hold whomever is in office accountable.

For the March primary, Chicagoans’ frustration with State’s Attorney Alvarez spurred a robust turnout for Foxx. A few months earlier, the video of police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times was released, and Alvarez was criticized for delaying 13 months until the eve of the video’s release to charge the officer. Activists already had it out for Alvarez on other accounts, such as undercharging Dante Servin for killing Rekia Boyd, which resulted in the case being thrown out entirely.

The grassroots campaign ByeAnita spearheaded Alvarez’s primary upset, but it was not an endorsement of Foxx herself.

“[The grassroots movement] was about highlighting the power of the office and how it was used and not used,” said Foxx last week. “The people said that whatever your platform, we want to hold you accountable. We’re going to hold your feet to the fire.”

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Bitter consequences: Pipeline protesters batten down the hatches for North Dakota winter

By Pat Nabong and June Leffler

[Package of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline stories here]

CANNON BALL, NORTH DAKOTA — Opponents of a controversial oil pipeline being constructed near Standing Rock Sioux Reservation are about to face a bitter winter. Camping near tents near Cannonball River, current temperatures hover in the mid-30s and are expected to drop to zero by January.

“It’s freezing cold. We’re just really cold,” said Daphne Singingtree, a retired midwife from Eugene, Oregon, who serves as an herbalist in the camp’s medical tent. “If it’s like this, I don’t know what it will be like in the middle of winter.”

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All-points call for more deputies to police Standing Rock protest draws critics

By June Leffler and Cloee Cooper

[Package of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline stories here]

The words “Sheriff Mahoney, No Pipeline Guards, Bring Them Home” were found chalked outside a sheriff’s office  in Madison, WI, last week in response to the deployment of deputies to North Dakota to police the protest of a pipeline that will transport crude oil from North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The words resonated. The deputies came back over the weekend.

The aborted mission  undermined recruitment efforts  undertaken by the sheriff in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, who recently began asking for support from law enforcement  across the nation to come to the area around Standing Rock Sioux reservation, 65 miles south of Bismarck.  Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier sent out word early in October because he said his office had run out of personnel and time; his deputies have been working overtime and need rest. In response, two groups – the Western States Sheriffs’ Association and the National Sheriffs’ Association. – pledged to send deputies. Wisconsin and South Dakota are the only states that have sent personnel so far, according to Kirchmeier, who added that he is planning to seek support elsewhere too.

Communities, like Madison, are questioning if the extra manpower is a form of protecting people or big business.
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Can Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day co-exist?

By June Leffler

[Package of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline stories here]

Chicago enters the debate over whether or not to celebrate Christopher Columbus, a man whose legacy has turned sour. Chicago designated Monday as Indigenous People’s Day, to be celebrated in conjunction with Columbus Day. Sharing the day might sound like a judicious move, but some Italian Americans are not happy about it.

Increasingly, cities like Seattle and Minneapolis are designating Indigenous People’s Day to celebrate the contributions of Native Americans and acknowledge their hardships. Four states – Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota don’t celebrate Columbus Day at all.

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Siding with Standing Rock at the Naperville Powwow

By June Leffler

[Package of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline stories here]

Every year, west suburban Naperville welcomes the Harvest Powwow, a rare occasion for non-natives to experience some representation of what Native American culture is.

This year, the powwow took a strong stance on environmental justice issues facing Native Americans.
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