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.
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.