Hundreds of 32BJ NY/NJ Airport Workers Rally at JFK Airport for Fair Contract in a Cry for Racial Justice
Following Chauvin verdict, group representing over 10,000 majority Black and Brown airport workers call for racial, healthcare justice in contract negotiations
NEW YORK, NY – “I risked myself, my family to do my job throughout the pandemic,” said Cristina Mendez, a LaGuardia terminal cleaner, as she addressed a sea of over 250 32BJ SEIU essential airport workers at a rally on Wednesday, “And these employers are penny-pinching over our safety and healthcare.”
Mendez is among the over 10,000 subcontracted workers across John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports bargaining for a new contract; they met with the employers for the first virtual bargaining session on March 4.
Hundreds of socially distanced workers gathered at the JFK Airport a day after the Chauvin guilty verdict in the shadow of images of Martin Luther King, Jr., calling for racial and economic justice at airports. The workers’ key demand is the proper implementation of the newly passed healthcare legislation, meant to equip the airport workers with substantial healthcare benefits; workers also protested the potential loss of a paid holiday for MLK Day, which has great symbolic meaning for the workers in their struggle for respect and justice.
The essential workers, among the largest groups of contracted airport workers to start bargaining since COVID-19 onset, said they are growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress being made at the bargaining table.
Airport workers and union officials say all options are on the table if an agreement is not reached, including and up to a strike, potentially affecting major airline operations across John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports.
“Yesterday, justice was served and our country took a major step in the right direction,” said SEIU 32BJ President Kyle Bragg, “However, we know that in order to achieve true racial justice, we must continue to fight for economic justice, healthcare justice, and dignity and respect Black and Brown workers deserve. It’s unconscionable to think that these contractors are trying to get in the way of Black and Brown frontline workers receiving healthcare.”
The Healthy Terminals Act, which requires employers to pay a benefit supplement meant to provide sustainable and meaningful health benefits to thousands of essential airport workers, was recently passed in New York, and is soon expected to be signed into law in New Jersey, following a raging call from the majority Black, Brown, immigrant workforce.
The essential workers fought and won the critical healthcare legislation in the middle of the pandemic, while the airline industry received up to $65 billion in federal bailout money under the CARES Act.
“Let me be clear, we will not back down until we win healthcare,” said Rob Hill, 32BJ Vice President and Director of Organizing, “The coronavirus pandemic was not the first health crisis our airports faced, nor will it be the last. Without necessary healthcare for airport workers, we simply cannot ensure the safety of millions of passengers they interact with. Health and safety is on the line, and we are not afraid to move towards a strike if we have to.”
Over the last year, the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color has drawn national attention to health injustice – a disparity that is familiar to essential airport workers who continued to work through the pandemic with no meaningful healthcare. For airport workers, health and racial justice are intertwined, and critical to address in the ongoing contract negotiations.
“I stand with the 32BJ airport workers as they fight for a fair contract. Our frontline workers – who are disproportionately Black and Brown – have sacrificed so much during this pandemic. They deserve robust health coverage and a full suite of good benefits. Let’s get this done,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.
“I proudly voted to pass the Healthy Terminals Act in the Assembly because thousands of airport workers in need of necessary healthcare are the backbone of our airports and our state,” added NY State Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, “We will not sit here and watch employers try to cut corners and withhold healthcare.”
The workers bargaining for a new contract have also been disheartened by their employers’ proposal to change the status of MLK Day, previously a paid holiday. The fight to have MLK Day recognized as a paid holiday, which began in 2014, was one of special significance for airport workers, in their majority Black, Brown and immigrant, and one which has gained even more significance in a backdrop of growing recognition of racial inequities.
After a year defined by America’s racial reckoning and countless Black lives lost, airport workers consider employers’ demands for givebacks a major step backwards in airport workers’ fight for justice and equity.
“Many of us have gotten sick, we have lost our brothers and sisters to this pandemic,” cried Vladimir Clairjeune, a JFK passenger service representative, “We are not going anywhere before we get our healthcare – no givebacks, not now, not ever!”
“Airport workers are essential workers who have been on the frontlines keeping our airports safe and our economy running throughout the pandemic. Employers should be thanking them, not trying to exploit them. I support these workers in their fight for health care and a fair contract. They deserve nothing less,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
“Airport workers risked their lives to keep our airports safe and our economy strong as the COVID-19 pandemic raged through our communities. Protecting workers means protecting passengers and instilling confidence in travel – and we can only do so with proper, meaningful healthcare. We need to build upon the Healthy Terminals Act which is so important for our workers, their families, our communities, and millions of passengers who use our airports. I call on the all the employers to take action and give airport workers a fair contract and healthcare that they deserve, and I thank 32BJ SEIU for their continued advocacy and leadership,” said Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Jr.
NYC Council Member Francisco Moya added, “I stand with my brothers and sisters, the frontline workers who have kept our airports safe and our economy running through the coronavirus pandemic. A strong contract that includes quality, affordable healthcare will be crucial for airport workers and their families. It will also give Black, Latino and immigrant workers, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, an equitable opportunity to protect themselves from this and other diseases.”
Airport workers represented by 32BJ include passenger service representatives, cabin and terminal cleaners, baggage handlers, security officers, wheelchair attendants and skycaps. The essential workers’ current contract expired on April 1; they are expected to meet back at the bargaining table this Friday.