By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
There was a sea of teal balloons at the International Worker’s Day rally at Sea-Tac’s International Flag Pavilion, organized by OneAmerica and Working Washington. Among the more than 900 attendees at the rally were airport workers from Sea-Tac Airport.
On most days, these largely unseen airport workers clean the airplane cabins after passengers leave, manage luggage transfers in the basement, refuel airplanes on the tarmac, and unload our luggage in the time it takes for passengers to walk from the gate to the baggage claim area. But on April 28, they gathered at the rally as a largely visible group waving American flags and the flags of their native countries. The energy in the air was of joy and celebration, but the rally would also be the beginning of a potentially long and difficult campaign.
More brown, wages go down
About six or seven years ago, OneAmerica (known at the time as Hate Free Zone) became aware of the discrimination faced by African Muslim shuttle drivers working for Hertz. The organization helped file an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit against Hertz on behalf of the shuttle drivers. This case would be OneAmerica’s introduction into the plight of many airport workers.
“I can’t tell you how shocked I was — and the company denied it — that employees were telling us that they couldn’t take the same elevators [as other airline employees]. I mean, this would be in the mid-2000s. The idea that we have that kind of overt racism is stunning to me on some level,” said OneAmerica Executive Director Pramila Jayapal.
“You think about racism sometimes being really hard to pin down, hard to prove. I think there is no surprise that as the airport workers have become more black, more brown, [and] more dark, wages have gone down.”
In the last 20 years, airlines have increased the amount of contracted services, replacing in-house airline employees with contracted workers in order to keep costs down. Alaska Airlines, a main corporation at Sea-Tac, was responsible for 51 percent of the landings at the airport. The company was slower than most carriers to contract out work. But in the last decade, shortly after 9/11, the airline has aggressively replaced its in-house employees who were paid living wages with low-cost contractors.
It’s estimated that about 4,000 workers are employed by airline contracts like Menzies, AirServ, Swissport, and Bags Inc., which compete to provide services to airlines. Though OneAmerica won its EEOC lawsuit against Hertz, the staggering increase of contracted airport workers, including those providing airport related services like parking attendants and shuttle drivers, meant that more issues would surface in the coming years. About 64 percent of airline contractor employees are people of color, including immigrants and refugees from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
A survey and review of government data conducted by Puget Sound Sage, OneAmerica, and Working Washington revealed that these workers earn an average wage of $9.70 an hour or $20,176 a year if they work full time — a scant $1,600 above the federal poverty threshold for a family of three. Currently, there are close to 2,800 poverty wage workers employed at Sea-Tac as wheelchair attendants, skycaps, ramp workers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, and jet fuel technicians.
The release of a recent report entitled “First-class Airport, Poverty-class Jobs,” done by Puget Sound, Working Washington, OneAmerica, and Faith Action Network reveals that contracted workers at Sea-Tac are the lowest paid workers compared to those at other major West Coast airports like San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles’ LAX, which pays an average of $13 to $15. As stipulated in the report, the increase of contracted services has led to a two-tiered system marked by those working directly for the airlines and the lesser paid, more expendable workers employed by contractors.
“What we realized in talking about it is a lot of these folks are contracted out,” explained Jayapal. “Once contracted out, they don’t have the right to be a part of a union, and they can’t organize themselves because they’re independent contractors. Companies that hire them can just say that [they’ll] hire somebody else.”
The airlines can and often do just that. In order to secure the lowest bid, companies retain the freedom to switch back and forth between contractors — similar to a game of low-bidding musical chairs — forcing contractors to push down wages and benefits for contracted workers in order to compete. It was after one of these run-of-the-mill contractor reshuffles at Delta Airlines that skycaps Alejandro Geracio, Hosea Wilcox, and Baltazar Pineda learned that they would lose their jobs. The three have a combined experience of more than 70 years.
“There was always the risk that we could lose our jobs. In the past, the companies would be more accommodating to taking on the workers that are already employed. This time, I was told that there would not be a position for me,” said Geracio, a Filipino American skycap who has worked at the airport for 22 years.
Geracio’s income as an airport worker has long been supplemented by his military retirement, but without the added income, finances will be tighter for him and his wife. But Geracio asserts that he is among the lucky ones, with the help of his military benefits and given his smaller family size.
Many contracted workers are unable to pay for the expensive medical benefits provided by the company while supporting children. Wilcox, who has worked as a skycap for 31 years, was not as lucky. He had to resort to using food stamps while still employed as an airline worker. Contracted workers often take on additional jobs to supplement their income.
As time went on, the issues kept coming, from the Sikh cab drivers, Samoan baggage handlers, and also the Eritrean Port of Seattle truck drivers before they went on strike in February. The Port of Seattle truck drivers complained about wage issues and reported poor working conditions, like having to use the bathroom in their trucks because the port did not have bathrooms available for them. Muslim workers complained about managers who did not allow them to pray. It became clear to Jayapal and other OneAmerica staff that this was becoming a much bigger issue.
With International Worker’s Day around the corner, the staff at OneAmerica saw it as an opportunity to call attention to the airport workers’ struggles while recognizing their hard work.
On April 28, a crowd of more than 900 people gathered at the rally, where Bai Li Ling, an airport concessions worker originally from China, addressed the crowd. Community leaders like Lua Pritchard of Asia Pacific Cultural Center, Congress member Adam Smith, King County Councilmember Julia Paterson, and Donna Denina of Pinay Sa Seattle spoke in support of improving wages and conditions for airline contract workers.
The large crowd then marched down two closed lanes of Highway 99 to Angle Lake Park, where the attendees celebrated with food, music, and dance. The day was meant to be a happy one, to bring together a community, which currently shares similar struggles but might soon also share the same victory.
“We have a lot of connections with Sikhs [and] with Africans, where we can bring them all together to say, ‘Listen, it’s not just a Hertz shuttle problem, it’s not just a taxi cab driver problem, it’s not just a baggage handler problem,” said Jayapal.
“It was a really beautiful thing. One of the cab drivers came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that all these other people were facing the same thing!’ That was exactly the goal.” (end)
Read the second part of the story in next week’s issue.
For more information, visit itsourairport.org.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at email@example.com.