Florida airport workers join national day of action to demand fair wages, union rights

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Orlando International Airport. Photo credit: Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

Tampa International Airport workers joined workers at Orlando International Airport on Wednesday to demand that top airlines like Delta and American Airlines pay workers a living wage, provide quality job benefits, and ensure union rights for all contracted workers.

They rallied as part of a national day of action organized by Airport Workers United, a campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) labor union, which represents over 30,000 workers at U.S. airports. According to HuffPost, hundreds of workers rallied in over 20 cities nationwide, from Miami to Boston, Dallas, and Los Angeles, similar to a week of action organized by SEIU last year.

Frank, who works as a wheelchair assistant at Tampa International Airport, is a contracted worker who joined workers in Orlando on Wednesday, alongside an Orange County commissioner and two Orlando-area state representatives.

A former union member of 16 years from New York City, Frank is a leader in the organizing efforts at TPA, where workers do not currently have a recognized union. He’s worked at TPA for over five years, and currently makes $8 an hour wheeling passengers through the airport, and at times lifting passengers into specialized chairs.

With the rising cost of living in Tampa, Frank told WMNF that the wages he makes aren’t nearly enough to make ends meet. “I love living in Tampa. It’s a beautiful city,” said Frank. “But, you know, you can’t live on $8 an hour.”

Florida’s minimum wage currently sits at $10 an hour for non-tipped workers, and $6.98 for tipped workers. Working as a wheelchair attendant, Frank is paid as a tipped worker, with his work contracted out by airlines like Delta and American Airlines.

Asking for tips, Frank said, is strictly prohibited. But without any way to make that direct ask, tips are unreliable at best. Moreover, passengers who typically require his services – often those who are elderly, or folks with disabilities – often live on a fixed income or may simply be unaware that he relies on tips to get by. “If they tip, it’s great. But if they don’t, you say, ‘Thank you, and have a good day.'”

Making poverty wages in major metro areas

He and many other contracted workers make what they describe as poverty wages, as they help to make travel possible at the nation’s bustling air hubs. Regardless of whether they work full-time hours, workers say they often lack benefits of employment, like health insurance and paid time off.

At a similar rally in Tampa last year, Anthony Sanders, a wheelchair assistant and baggage handler at Tampa International Airport, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay he made just $7 an hour on the job, and was at one point homeless in his search for an affordable place to live. “Passengers depend on us to physically help them and make sure they’re getting to their flight safely,” he said. “Our work is important so we deserve better.”

Meanwhile, CEOs for top airlines like Delta, United Airlines, and American Airlines, rake in millions of dollars in total compensation each year. In 2020, Delta CEO Ed Bastian received over $13 million – a figure Aviation Pros described as a “pay cut” for Bastian. Retiring American Airlines CEO Doug Parker made over $10.6 million in 2020, while United Airlines’ CEO made $16.7 million.

‘Enough is enough’

State Representatives Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith, both of whom are Democrats, joined the rally in Orlando. A daughter of working class immigrants, Eskamani told workers that her father once worked in an airport restaurant himself.

“I grew up in this community and I know just how important of an economic driver this airport is,” said Eskamani. “We see the cost of housing going up, we see the impact of inflation. And yet for these workers, they see no advancements. They see no support in being able to make ends meet. How can these CEOs and executives make millions while workers are making sometimes eight bucks an hour?”

Smith – who, like Eskamani, regularly shows up for organized labor in Orlando – said, enough is enough. “Our working Floridians who are trying to put food on the table deserve fair wages, and they deserve fair benefits.”

A call to action for airlines

Contracted airport workers nationwide – including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, and wheelchair attendants – are calling on Delta, United, and American Airlines to sign a “Good Airports” pledge. That pledge, detailed in an open letter from the SEIU, supports national standards for the airlines’ workers that would end poverty wages, guarantee quality benefits, and ensure union rights for all workers.

Workers covered by a union contract earn 10.2% more than non-union workers, on average. According to the Economic Policy Institute, union membership can also reduce gender and racial wage gaps.

An estimated 64% of airport workers are people of color, according to the SEIU. Many are tasked with some of the toughest jobs at the nation’s transportation hubs, involving arduous physical labor with little room for reprieve. In the open letter, the union wrote, “You have the power to transform the airline industry so that every airport job can be a good job that sustains families and helps build stronger communities.”

Airlines received a  $54 billion bailout from the federal government through the CARES Act, to help maintain operations and cover payroll for workers. Despite this, airline continue to face delays, flight cancellations, and staffing shortages, at least in part driven by low, stagnant wages and a lack of benefits.

Frank, the wheelchair attendant at Tampa International Airport told WMNF, “I think it’s just a matter of doing the right thing by the employees, the people that are working for them [the airlines], you know?”

“I love the job,” he added. “I love helping people, you know, and they’re just so appreciative. I just wish the airlines would realize what we’re doing for their passengers, and do the right thing by us.”

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