We can’t walk away from this fight

August 27, 2015

Some 1,200 baggage handlers and security guards at New York's LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airports announced a victory when their employer Aviation Safeguards agreed to recognize SEIU Local 32BJ as their union representative. "This agreement," announced the union in a press release, "will bring the number of subcontracted airport workers who have won, or are on a path to win, 32BJ recognition to almost 7,000--a majority of subcontracted workers at the airports. We are well on our way to making sure our airports are economic engines, not sweatshops." As of yet, the workers don't have a contract.

The fight for improved wages and benefits is being fought on two tracks--fighting for union contracts with subcontractors like Aviation Safeguards and pressuring the airports' operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In April 2014, shortly after a ten-mile march by airport workers from JFK to LaGuardia on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination, the Port Authority board voted to increase the airports' minimum wage by $1 to $10.10 an hour. Now airport workers are keeping up the pressure on the Port Authority to make good on a promise put out a more extensive plan for benefits and wage increases.

Michael Carey, a security officer at Aviation Safeguards for six years, was a leader in the union drive. He spoke to Danny Katch about the campaign.

WHAT WERE some of the main concerns that led people to want a union?

HEALTH CARE, benefits and wages. I started out making $8 an hour. I've been there for 6 years, and I've never gotten a raise. I 've known people who have been there for 20 years at $8 an hour, and they haven't gotten a raise.

I come from Jamaica, and I was shocked to see you have to be fighting to get by on the minimum wage. From whatever country you're from, you think about coming to America to improve your life, but you come here, and you have to fight for a minimum wage.

When other workers started telling me that they've been working for 15 years, and this is what they're getting, I couldn't conceive how this could be happening in the United States of America.

I realized the power the union had. We never spoke about anything like wages before. We just went to work, did our jobs, got paid and went home. When this campaign started we realized there's room for improvements.

HAVE YOU been an activist before this? The kind of person co-workers would look to?

Low-wage workers demonstrate at New York City's Kennedy Airport
Low-wage workers demonstrate at New York City's Kennedy Airport (SEIU 32BJ)

BACK HOME, I was involved in a union in my workforce, so I'm familiar with the gist of doing stuff like this. Here, it's the first time--I've been in this country for seven years now.

WERE THERE things that your union experience enabled you to teach your co-workers?

THERE'S A kind of dark side to what people visualize about union activities. A lot of people are skeptical, because they think the dues are just for themselves. That's one of the most-asked questions on a campaign: What are the benefits what are the drawbacks?

It's beneficial to have someone like me that knows the inside and out of the union. In any organization, there are going to be things that you don't want to get into, but the benefits outweigh the negatives.

Just four weeks ago, two workers got fired on the job at the airport. With the union behind us, we staged a mini-rally because they were within their rights at the time they got fired. They got reinstated--that's one of the benefits of having a union and a voice.

The thing that people don't understand about the union is that it's not a body off on its own. It's the workers who are the union, and our voice that is really the movement. So we staged that mini-rally, and we presented the case to management because they were unfairly terminated--that's why they got their jobs back.

We had the backing of the union. The company knew it was behind us. But it was us--the workers at the forefront. We had a one-on-one meeting with the vice president. He heard our views about why we think they were unjustly terminated, and he listened to us. He gave his view about why he thinks what happened wasn't problematic. But we bounced views back and forth, and we staged a rally.

A FEW years ago, there probably wouldn't have been the confidence and organization to rally and fight for terminated workers. What has changed among you and your co-workers, and how did it change?

IT WAS education. I and other workers were educated about the union itself. I did my research over the process of the two-and-a-half years and all the campaigns I went on, like the Martin Luther King Day march from JFK to LaGuardia.

We realized how important our voices are as workers. We realized we could make a stand without being intimidated and without fear. I put myself out there. When I did interviews for the radio and newspapers, I wasn't touched. So that was one of the things I brought to workers. I said, "You see me doing interviews and talking to the papers, and I'm still working." So you have to realize that workers do have a voice.

Before that, workers had been fired for reasons that were justified or not justified, but there was no outcry, either way. We just mumbled among ourselves and kept it moving. When we got knowledgeable about our rights and our voice and the power we have with the backing of the union behind us, things changed. We realized that we could be heard.

HAS THE number of workplace leaders increased? Is that something you've consciously thought about or has it been spontaneous?

IT GOES both ways. During the campaign, we see people coming out and being vocal. Not everyone speaks--some people are in the background, but they're powerful nonetheless. They may not be a public speaker, but they're there to support everything. People are recognized for what they're doing, and they come to the fore.

Even for the ones identified as getting special treatment from management, a lot of people bought into what we're doing in the months leading up to the campaign. They were radicalized, so to speak.

YOU DON'T have a contract yet. What are some of the things that have improved on the job as a result of the campaign?

WHEN THE union representative first started handing out buttons, and we started wearing them, management was trying to subdue us, telling workers they would be penalized if they wore buttons. A lot of people were scared at the outset because we didn't know what our rights were.

Fear comes from not knowing. Once we knew what our rights were, we could move forward within the rights of workers.

Even when we started doing it, a lot of workers were written up for wearing buttons. When we reported it to the union, the managers were written up for doing this, and had to retract it and make a formal apology to the workers. They put it on the board inside the workplace, that they apologize, and we could go ahead and wear buttons. So that was not even a minor victory. It was a big victory for us when we realized what we could do.

HAS THE union campaign improved your daily experience at work?

FOR ME personally, regardless of the pay structure and environment, I do enjoy my job. It's not just being a security officer. It's being a person that has information to pass on to people--passengers or whoever.

I love doing what I do. I was on a course toward leaving--almost out the door, I was trying to improve myself--get into something better. But then I realized that it's a fight, and it's not just about me individually. It's about improving the standards of the whole airport, how it is structured economically. It wasn't going away.

I researched and realized that when you come into a company in a job like airport, you think this may be the job of a lifetime. But when you get involved and realized how it is structured you realize that people have been stagnant for years not moving forward.

Prior to this, before the contractors came in, it was a good job financially. People were getting paid properly. But when companies like British Airways and United decided to contract these jobs out, that's when everything became different. It's a bid for all the contractors to get airline contracts so the competitive nature of it hurt the financial aspect of it in terms of wages.

When I come here and have my airport badge, people in the neighborhood think "he must be rolling in it." But that's not the way it is.

HOW HAS this campaign changed you?

IT HAS in so many ways, both personally and professionally.

I lost my wife and two kids a year ago because of what I was doing-– and I understand where my wife is coming from financially. She's in a good job, she was bearing the brunt financially, and she wanted me to quit doing what I was doing. But I couldn't because it wasn't just about me--it was about changing the whole situation at the airport. I refused to do it, and we broke up.

In other ways, I've met some interesting people and prominent people. I met with the Cardinal about a year or so ago. I wanted him to come on board, and he did in some small ways. It was in the paper.

WHAT DO you say to people who would like to organize at their own job?

I'VE BEEN bashed--on Facebook and other media--in the Fight for 15 campaign. People are saying, "Why don't you get a better job?" "It's not a career."

In my speech at Port Authority, I said that, of course, there's nothing wrong with improving yourself. People should go back to school, get a better job. But if all of us did that and walked away from improving industries like the airport or fast-food workers, it will remain the same.

If we're providing these conglomerates with all those millions, we should at least be able to support our families. We shouldn't be working two or three jobs, or breaking up families because you can't support yourself in the position that you're in.

These are multibillion-dollar industries, but not for us. And those coming in will still be in that same stagnant situation. We can't all walk away from this. Somewhere along the line, people have to stand up and try to improve these industries. If everybody just stands aside and lets these conglomerates do what they're doing, there will be no improvement.

We're really happy to put our fight with Aviation Safeguards behind us. Having the company on our side will make work so much easier, but we still need the Port Authority to get its act together and increase wages. The ball is in their court now.

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