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.

Airport workers
Fight for $15, ONE Northside and other labor allies show support for low-wage O’Hare workers. (June Leffler/Medill)

The strike vote was announced today at the SEIU offices at a press conference that brought together airport employees, city aldermen, and labor organization allies.

Those on strike are employed by one of three contractors: Prospect Airport Services, AirServ and Scrub, Inc.

“They treat us like animals,” said Kisha Rivera, a custodian with Scrub, Inc.

She said she wakes up at 2 a.m. for a two-hour commute. She makes minimum wage and claims her wages have been stolen.

“The city has failed to protect us when our employers mistreat us,” said Oliwia Pac, an employee with Prospect Airport Services.

Airport workers around the country are calling for higher wages. Workers “slept-in” at Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport on Tuesday, saying their wages are so low they can’t afford rent or transportation. Earlier this year, airport workers threatened to strike in Philadelphia around the time of the Democratic National Convention, resulting in deals involving the local SEIU, mayor, governor and American Airlines.

O’Hare workers most recently went on an unfair labor practice strike on March 31 to “protest the retaliation they’re suffering from their employers after coming together for $15 and union rights,” said Nick Desideri, of SEIU.

Marcie Barnett, who worked as an O’Hare security worker, said she was fired shortly after participating in that strike.

“People need the jobs,” said Barnett. “Contractors at O’Hare need to stop playing games with our lives.”

Balanoff said there is no vote to unionize set, but that he hopes the strike will bring a dialogue between workers and the contractors regarding unionization.

Airport workers have filed complaints and lawsuits against the contractors. Last Monday, workers filed a complaint with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) against three of the contractors. Workers have 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 workers less than minimum wage. Messages left with the contractors were not returned.

Earlier this month, 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar and 29 other aldermen sponsored a measure directing the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection to revoke the business licenses of four contractors, including Lott Management and United Maintenance, for violating wage payment regulations.

“Historically those jobs would have been airlines jobs,” said Pawar’s Chief of Staff Jim Poole. “Regardless of how the workers are employed, wages shouldn’t be stolen.”

Workers have also brought wage theft lawsuits that resulted in cash settlements. While settling doesn’t mean that contractors are admitting fault, the pattern of these claims is apparent, said Poole. Poole said each settlement has provided lump sum payments, but have added little to sustained change for workers.

In September, United Maintenance settled with over 1,000 janitors, dolling out $850,000.

Marlen Garcia, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, writes about the struggles of airport workers. Her dad was an airport custodian and a unionized employee of American Airlines who supported seven kids.

“The wages were low, we still lived in poverty, but when my brother broke his leg, we had private health insurance to pay for that,” said Garcia. “It didn’t make us homeless. It didn’t force us to go on taxpayer assistance.”

Since 2012, airport workers have criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his business deals with the contractors. Under Emanuel, the city entered into a five-year $99 million contract with United Maintenance, which laid off hundreds of union janitorial workers and brought in non-union workers.

SEIU said airport workers are particularly vulnerable because many of them are immigrants and refugees. These groups may speak English as their second language, not be aware of their labor rights and generally not want to rock the boat.

“They’re just happy to be here, and they deserve an honest day’s pay,” Garcia said. “It becomes a situation where wage theft can easily occur.”

While many aldermen are on their side, Garcia said the results of the strike will be based on how organized they are and how far they are willing to take it.

Shortly after the SEIU news conference, one of the mayor’s spokespeople went to O’Hare to address the potential of a strike, according to the mayor’s office.

“The mayor and aviation are not freaking out yet,” Garcia said.

Photo at top: Alderman Ameya Pawar speaks at SEIU Local 1 in support of O’Hare airport workers. (June Leffler/MEDILL)