By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Scores of airport workers rallied on Thursday in New York and other cities to demand higher wages in one of several protests planned by an array of interest groups to mark the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
About 200 service workers blocked a dozen or so bus and car drivers by sitting down on a street bridge leading to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. After a few minutes, an organizer urged the crowd to move on because the police said they would be arrested, and the rally dispersed soon after.
At Philadelphia International Airport, about 100 non-unionized airport workers marched silently through four terminals to a designated “free speech zone” where they held a rally accusing contractors of ignoring minimum wage rules.
Similar protests were planned at airports in Boston and Fort Lauderdale in Florida, organizers said.
All told, some 12,000 people work for cleaning, baggage handling, security and other service contractors at the three major airports serving New York City, according to the Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, most of them earning $9 per hour.
“It’s very hard not to know if you’re going to have money for your daughter,” said Gian Lopez, a 22-year-old LaGuardia baggage handler who depends on a $9 hourly wage, food stamps and rental assistance to support his girlfriend and daughter in the Bronx.
New York’s minimum wage is $8.75 an hour for most jobs. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which runs the airports, ruled last year that its contractors must pay at least $10.10 an hour to most airport workers starting in February, a Port Authority spokeswoman said.
Speaking to marchers before they set off, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, described economic disparities in the United States as “a disease.”
“It’s morally wrong to leave those behind that are making America economically strong,” he told the crowd.
Other groups are also marking the birthday of King, who is celebrated for advocating peaceful civil disobedience to advance civil rights and who was killed by an assassin in 1968.
Later on Thursday, a rally is planned for outside New York City’s police headquarters and at Grand Central Terminal by protesters angered by several recent killings of unarmed black men by white police officers during controversial encounters.
Earlier, about 29 protesters were arrested in Massachusetts after they stopped traffic on a highway into Boston during the morning rush hour, officials said.
(Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston and Dan Kelley in Philadelphia; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Susan Heavey)