Workers at ‘America’s best airport’ take low-wage movement to new heights

SEIU 49 members taking action to support PDX airport workers. (Facebook / Our Airport)

SEIU 49 members taking action to support PDX airport workers. (Facebook / Our Airport)

Joanna Rudolph leaves for work over an hour before it starts each day. She must travel a series of highways to the outskirts of town where the Portland International Airport is located. She parks almost a mile away in the employee section of an expansive series of lots before waiting for a shuttle that brings her near the front entrance. She then waits and is processed through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint before heading down the concourse to the busiest Starbucks in the city, where she works five days a week. She gets paid minimum wage, which — in Oregon — is $9.25 an hour.

As the battle is being waged across big labor for the fate of low-wage workers, from the highly publicized fast-food targets of the Fight for 15 to the lofty goals of OUR Walmart, one of the largest planks of this movement has been organizing at large-scale commercial airports across the country. In November, concessions workers at Portland International — often referred to as “the best airport in the country” — joined Unite-HERE Local 8. This addition of 172 workers marked the largest increase for Local 8 in years and made it the 30th airport where workers have joined with Unite-HERE to fight poverty, low wages and job insecurity. These airports, like many others, have a large number of concessions and restaurant establishments owned by the company HMS Host, which handles franchises like Starbucks in airport settings.

Unite-HERE currently represents a total of 10,000 HMS employees nationally, making it one of the largest staffed companies for organized labor. It is also one of the largest unions in North America, representing more than a quarter-million workers between the United States and Canada. Formed by a merger between the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, they have been a fast organizing union that has a heavy place among hotel, restaurant, and, now, airport workers.

As members of a massive low-wage workforce, airport workers are both receptive to and in need of workplace representation; and when workers are organized at one airport and company it makes it easier to organize elsewhere. This “domino effect” has been consistent as Unite-HERE increases its organizing in West Coast airports. This opens up organizing opportunities as airport workers represent one of the largest job pools in any given city. Airports are also important for manufacturing and distribution, as well as hubs for the service industry that is tied to commercial travel. For instance, Los Angeles International Airport — an economic center of the city, which is common across the country — is responsible for around 59,000 jobs within the airport and catering directly to it in some way.

Because of the number of low-wage jobs in airports, and their importance for large cities, Unite-HERE has created a successful strategy of targeting many of the same companies that own massive swaths of the franchises in the airport. This has become especially true for organizing workers at Starbucks, with HMS Host being the only company that owns the Starbucks license for all airports in the country.

In December, Unite-HERE workers at San Francisco International finally won important job protection, healthcare and pension concessions after holding a 48-hour strike. Meanwhile on December 12, 350 HMS Host food-service workers in Miami authorized a strike vote for their local 355, which hadn’t happened in decades. The Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has now passed the vote ratifying Unite-HERE, while other airport campaigns are still in progress. Together, this makes almost 70 major international airports in North America where food service, retail and other services have been successfully organized and represented with Unite-HERE.

The success of this union election came largely from the enthusiasm and commitment of the workers themselves in their own organizing committee. Though Unite-HERE has often focused on food service and concessions in airports, SEIU Local 49 is also flooding in to the Portland Airport, organizing baggage handlers.

“Unionizing was necessary to provide the organization needed to unite workers and provide the means to build power and demand reasonable conditions and respect,” said Ayme Ueda, who was a server with the HMS owned Gustav’s restaurant in Portland. “I believe it to be a necessary tool in uniting the working class as a whole against abusive and oppressive entities, and to take back dignity and power in a world where we are allowed to make so few of the decisions that impact our lives, and the lives of those to come.”

The ratification of the union at Portland International was not simply a local achievement, but a step in a nationwide strategy where airports are being organized quickly and with the widespread support of workers.

“One of the largest reasons [to join the union] is to hold management accountable,” Rudolph said. “Staff and supervisors are running the stores and take ownership of the stores, and management doesn’t communicate with each other. They don’t communicate with us.”

For 48 of these newly unionized workers, this organizing victory was short lived. After the recent union “card check,” New Year’s Eve was the last day of employment for the workers at Gustav’s restaurant. All the businesses that reside within the airport are there on a contract basis. The spaces are bid upon and confirmed by the Port Authority. Gustav’s failed to win their bid, meaning that they will be replaced by another incoming restaurant. For HMS Host, this may mean simply looking for different locations and possible agreements, but for the workers — many of who had been there for most of the restaurant’s 13-year existence at the airport — this provides little comfort. They were not guaranteed a job at another business, though there have been “job fairs” curated by the Port Authority to try to connect former workers with new opportunities. In addition to the layoffs at Gustav’s, workers may be laid off at both the Rogue restaurant and Starbucks this coming summer with their possible closure.

Aside from strong contracts, the priority for the union has been to fight for worker retention policies at these airports, which would guarantee workers first choice at the new contracts coming in to replace their old jobs. This has been an important policy for maintaining both the strength of individual members’ jobs and the presence of the union at airports. So far, it has worked in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, with airports in those cities adding the desired retention policies at the behest of union organizing. In Portland, this policy has remained glaringly absent, and they have begun to put pressure on the Port of Portland, the committee body that has the ability to set policy both at the marine and airports. With many workers reporting the closure of more than half of the businesses surrounding their workplace, and with 11 new businesses slated to come in, this is an environment in constant flux.

As Unite-HERE continued its campaign, moving in the direction of a Port Authority-mandated worker retention policy, the union put together a report featuring surveys of more than 100 airport concessions workers about their lives and working conditions. The median wage was only $9.30 an hour for non-supervisors, which is far below the $11.70 that the Oregon Center for Public Policy reports is required for families to simply be above the federal poverty line. Only a total of 16 percent of these workers could afford to purchase health insurance from their employer, and almost a quarter of them were on a federal food stamps program. One in four said that they had chosen not to eat at some point in the last year due to financial constraints. These conditions have remained relatively consistent even though the concessions revenue grew by 34 percent between 2010 and 2014. Last year, these concessions companies reaped a staggering $90 million in Portland alone.

Workers waiting to testify at the Port Commission meeting. (Facebook / Portland Jobs With Justice)

Workers waiting to testify at the Port Commission meeting. (Facebook / Portland Jobs With Justice)

For several months since the union votes were first tallied, workers and community members have been packing Port Authority meetings to have their voices heard about what a worker retention policy would mean, highlighting the insecurity this contract system has brought into their lives.

“I work here full time, but if I didn’t have another job, I would be forced to be on public assistance,” said Tia Sell, who works at Starbucks. “I’m an Iraqi war veteran. I’m a woman who has served her country and daily I come here to serve travelers at Portland International. I love what I do, but I want to have a family one day. But I cannot consciously bring another human life into this world knowing that in order to do so I would become a burden on taxpayers.”

The organizing strategy that has seen the most consistent increases in union membership and stability at airports has generally been targeting the Port Authority directly. In December, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ruled that the $10.10 minimum wage for workers on new federal contracts also applied to airports, which workers were heavily pressing for at Local 100 in New York.

The solidarity between labor unions has been evident in public meetings, as International Longshore and Warehouse Union are consistent speakers at the port commission in Portland, discussing things that relate directly to their workers at the marine port. They have now begun to speak out publicly about their support of the Unite-HERE workers and the retention policy, with workers presenting directly at ILWU meetings in a call for broader port-worker support.

Time, however, is going to start running out for many of the unionized workers in Portland who are coming up on contract bidding, especially at workplaces with smaller profits. Unite-HERE has been simultaneously negotiating the first contract — with heavy worker participation — and continuing to put pressure on the Port of Portland to include worker retention in their vague “social equity” policy. Union presence at the port is going to continue to be a point of contention as the ILWU maintains its heated West Coast negotiations with United Grain and the corporate ownership shifts around airline travel in general. Unite-HERE may choose to escalate to more public actions this month to force the issues around the “country’s best airport,” and how they treat their workers.

With the support of many local labor leaders, the workers at Portland International are continuing their campaign, and calling on the broader labor community to show the solidarity necessary to achieve a worker retention policy.

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