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Airport workers' union says bosses changed tune after Trump election

Workers at Philadelphia International Airport accuse their employers of tearing up benefits agreements after Donald Trump took the White House.
Philadelphia International Airport workers, part of the 32BJ labor union, marched outside of Terminal B/C to demand a contract with American Airlines subcontractors PrimeFlight and Prospect, at PHL International, July 13, 2017. (Charles Mostoller)

Although airport workers have held off promised strikes this week, workers held a rally Thursday at the Philadelphia International Airport to remind the companies involved that they are willing to strike if need be.

“They aren’t even trying to work with us,” said Alfred Williams, a baggage handler at the airport. “A lot of my co-workers are fed up.”

Members of 32BJ SEIU, a union that represents service industry employees including low-wage workers in fast food, health care and airport services, had planned to call a strike at Philadelphia International Airport on Wednesday until American Airlines entered what a union representative called “last minute discussions."

Williams, 30, of Germantown, works for PrimeFlight, a subcontractor under American Airlines. Four years ago he started at a salary of $7.25 an hour, and though negotiations in recent years have raised most airport worker salaries to about $12 an hour, he said it’s not a fair wage for the work he does on a daily basis.

“I can go through a thousand or more bags a day," Williams said. "That takes a lot out of a person."

According to 32BJ SEIU vice president Gabe Morgan, the workers in the union are faced with “poverty-level wages." He explained that airport jobs like baggage handler and janitor used to be union jobs, but were eventually subcontracted out to companies like PrimeFlight and Prospect Airport Services, which he said pay lower wages for the same work.

In an effort to push for workers to get basic health benefits, paid sick days and the ability to negotiate for better wages, workers held a strike during the Democratic National Convention last year.

At that time, Morgan said, the union had believed they had “reached a framework” of a deal with American Airlines.

However, Morgan said, when Donald Trump won the election, the airline and its subcontractors backed out of the deal.

“We sat down to talk and we thought we had reached a framework,” said Morgan. “Then, after that [Trump’s election] happened and American backed out of the deal and the contractors backed out of the deal.”

Also, on Thursday, Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement, urging the subcontracting companies to “keep their word and take actions” to avoid disruption of service at the airport that a strike would likely cause.

“Just as important as the airport is to our economy, so too is our respect for our workers’ rights to organize and access better paying jobs, which is why we’ve worked to ensure 21st Century Wage standards were adopted into the current lease,” Kenney said in a statement. “We are prepared to explore legal options, including the revocation of licenses if there have been violations of the labor peace provisions of the license agreements between the City and the contractors.”

According to Morgan, parties on both sides are still in discussions.

But the union, which nationally has 163,000 members in eleven states and Washington, D.C., is still prepared to strike.