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Op-Ed: Airport Workers, First Line of Service, First Line of Defense

While we’ve had several victories in improving work conditions, most of us still earn minimum-wage salaries and live below the poverty-wage rate

Yvette Stephens
Yvette Stephens

When you walk into an airport, workers like me — security officers, wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, and other subcontracted workers — are usually the first people you see during your travels. Because we are front and center during an airport emergency, like the multiple shooting and bomb scares at Newark Liberty International Airport this year, we are typically the first line of defense.

As an airport escort, my job is to assist passengers getting on or off an airplane and to help them with their luggage. It may not sound like part of my job description, but I take pride in keeping travelers and fellow colleagues safe. In fact, all employees at Newark have a common goal: to make sure our airport is ready, safe and strong: especially during the bustling holiday travel season. But that is hard to do when low wages drive up turnover rates and force us to take second jobs as we struggle to support ourselves at home.

We care about our passengers, and proactive policy changes that’ll help us earn family-sustaining wages and better benefits could help us better serve them.

During the eight years that Chris Christie was governor of the Garden State, he blocked improvements that would have provided good jobs for contracted airport workers. He halted our efforts as we fought for better wages, better health benefits, and comprehensive training so we could do our jobs and protect the public to the best of our ability.

However, with a new governor all of this could finally change!

Making ends meet

Dozens of my colleagues — airport workers employed at JFK, LGA, and EWR who are represented by our union, 32BJ SEIU — descended on the recent Port Authority board meeting. Some of us spoke about our struggles to make ends meet because of our low wages.

I was gratified to see that the commissioners seemed to take the plight of the 40,000 men and women who keep our New Jersey and New York airports safe and running seriously.

In 2014, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey promised to release a “better wage and benefits plan” for airport workers in both states. But Christie, who headed the New Jersey side of the Port Authority, stalled that promise.

My coworkers and I have been organizing as part of the largest property service union in the country. With 165,000 members standing behind us we continue to fight for our rights. For years, many of us have been attending Port meetings, engaging in civil disobedience, demonstrating at protests and rallies, participating in strikes at the airport, and engaging in other collective activities as we continue our fight for family-sustaining wages and improved health and safety conditions.

But while we’ve had several victories in improving work conditions, including the ratification of our first collective bargaining agreement, most of us still earn minimum-wage salaries and live below the poverty-wage rate.

Lawmakers from the local to the statewide level have supported our efforts. As Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wrote in September, “privately contracted workers at Newark Airport are among the lowest paid in the nation” and the airlines haven’t stepped in to fix the low-bidding system. while the Port Authority, which has the power to enact policies that help workers, has demurred.

Now that Phil Murphy is governor-elect, and we have a new executive director and board at the port, it’s time for the bistate agency to enact progressive policies that help workers on both sides of the Hudson get the wages, benefits, and training we need. Airport workers, the public, and the governors of both states support this now, so there shouldn’t be anything holding them back.

By establishing these rules, port leaders can help us keep our airports ready, safe, and strong!

Yvette Stephens works as an escort at Newark Liberty International Airport.

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