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