Organizing for Working Families


Airport jobs used to be good jobs. Twenty-five years ago, an airport worker could expect to work directly for the airlines, be paid a living wage, and have good health insurance and other benefits. Today it’s a different story.

Now, the airlines use a subcontracting system to maximize their profits while driving the cost of labor down. The result? By the time I started working at the airport in 2012, the airlines were making record profits and most subcontracted workers were finding it difficult to survive.

Many times people forget the faces behind the word “labor.” I am one of many terminal cleaners at JFK Airport. When I started, I was 26 years old and struggling to provide for my two daughters on just $7.65 an hour.

I had no affordable health insurance, and no paid holidays or sick days off. It would take two of my paychecks just to cover our electricity bill and by the time I paid for day care and bought a metro card to get to work, I would have nothing left. I began temporarily working a second job at McDonalds, and like many of my coworkers I relied on public assistance and Medicaid to survive.

Thousands of workers at New York and New Jersey airports were in the same boat as me, so we began organizing with 32BJ SEIU to demand a change. We had four goals that would change my life if we could win them: higher wages, benefits, respect on the job and union representation.

Better jobs at the airports would also make the airports safer, cleaner and more comfortable for passengers. Higher wages would mean more money going back into our local communities. There was a lot to fight for, and we quickly found that fast food workers and other low-wage workers around the country had the same demands for $15 and a union.

airport workers organize

After telling my story to Sen. Charles Schumer, he invited me to attend President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union. We have spoken out at board meetings for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has the ability to mandate $15 an hour for all airport workers in the region. We have been arrested with elected officials and our other supporters while protesting for our first paid holiday: MLK Day. And when my coworkers and I went on strike over health and safety concerns, the entire country paid attention.

It has been tiring at times, but I am not the only leader speaking up in this fight for good jobs. I have my coworkers and thousands of other airport workers around the country who are all standing together. Since we started our campaign in New York, other workers across the country heard our stories and began organizing in more than 15 airports across the country. We have been able to hold national days of action and even national airport strikes.

And all that hard work is paying off! We won MLK Day as our first paid holiday. We got the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to raise the minimum wage at all of the states’ airports to $10.10 an hour.  Gov. Cuomo has created a path to a $15 minimum wage for all workers in New York state. And 7,000 airport workers in New York and New Jersey, including me, have won union recognition with 32BJ! We are now preparing for an airport workers contract campaign where we will finally put our rights into writing.

We came together and enacted change that no one thought would ever be possible, and we won’t stop fighting until all airport workers in across the country have good, family-sustaining jobs. It may sound impossible, but I know together we can get it done.

Shareeka Elliott is a terminal cleaner at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Editor’s Note: The third regional summit on worker voice was May 6 in New York City. The Department of Labor and the White House are focused on bringing together seasoned and emerging leaders from across the country who are lifting up workers’ voices to be active participants in this conversation. Join the conversation online and help us continue to #StartTheConvo and share why having #WorkerVoice is important to you.

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This is good , but just not good enough. The pay should be at least $15.00 or more everywhere. The government know how much it really cost to have a nice living for your family. Medical cost or very high. The sad thing is that its a must. Food prices are to high. I don't go out to the movies because I can't afford it. I know that there are plenty of families that can't take their family out for a family day or night.
Sad you know. This is what makes our young children start stealing and taking because they have not. These children become adults that feel that its no use in working for small change when they can take, steal and even kill for it.
Work wages should be raised and Social Security also along with unemployment as prices for houses, cars, food and medicine go up.
This is just sad living this way.

The arguments and positions regarding this issue are always the same: "give me more", "I'm entitled", "you all owe me more money per hour." Why is it we don't see the DOL or other government agencies encouraging people to get an education and thereby put themselves in a better position for better pay? Why are those who feel they are underpaid always claiming that they are owed more money? Why is it that the employers are always the ones at fault?

My position is simple. If you want a better paying job, then study hard in school, increase your education and put yourself in a better position for a better paying job. Take responsibility for your position in life; stop relying on others to hand you something you haven't earned. If all of the airport workers had improved education and skills that enabled them to find better paying jobs elsewhere, then maybe the airport would have to increase the rate of pay to keep the labor force. As it stands, they don't have to offer better pay because there are thousands of people out there - just like those featured in this story - that are uneducated and unskilled and are in no position to "demand" better pay. They have to take what they can get.

If you want more, make yourself worth more.

It makes me wonder if these companies ever think about our nation when they decide the rate of pay to pay an employee. They should be at least keeping up with the cost of living. They are forcing employees to turn to the government just to put food on the table. To me these companies are thinking about them selves and not our countries families and nation. They are giving way for people to rely on the government making more and more people and generations to come to look to the government to take care of them. If we all rely on the government our nation will be come a communist nation. Just saying...

If it is a good thing to raise the minimum wage artificially, then why don't we make it $100 per hour? Crazy, one might comment. But that is the point, at what level does it not make sense? The comment from Patty suggests that when government is relied upon, not all goes well. So, why are we asking for more governmental involvement? The free market is a large part of what made this nation great. But with more and more governmental involvement, we are slipping into a nation of total dependence on the government. Social conditions are not improving. Connect the dots.

I do not appreciate my tax dollars going to such a political organization such as the DOL.

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