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Will Worker Justice Take Flight at Chicago Airports?

Will worker justice take flight at Chicago airports? by Bob Simpson

 “I make $10.50 an hour, which is not a living wage here in Chicago, but due to the new victory which we won…in a year I’ll be making a living wage. This is a huge victory not only for me but for my family and my coworkers and their families as well. I will be able to move my kids into a safe neighborhood and with the new contract I will be able to afford health insurance.”

–Tamekah Shivers, O’Hare Airport concessions worker who recently gained a union contract

O’Hare Airport is a confusing crowded warren of human activity. Even Chicago natives get lost in O’Hare, an airport that always seems to be under construction somewhere. Fortunately there is an abundance of small shops where harried travelers may find refreshments and reading material to lower their stress levels. The same is true at Chicago’s much smaller and more human-sized Midway Airport.
At O’Hare you may meet Tamekah Shivers, an O’Hare concession worker. She is a single mom with 3 young boys. Her 8 year old has Downs Syndrome and her 3 year old is a sickle cell anemia carrier. Perhaps you’ll get a meal served by Aida Olavarria who supports her daughter and grandson on her small O’Hare restaurant salary. If you buy a coffee and pastry at an O’Hare Starbucks, you may get back some change from Peggy Willis. Willis is determined that her 3 year old son will go to college when he is older, no matter what.

A contract recently negotiated by UNITE-HERE Local 1 and signed by O’Hare concessionaire HMS Host is a godsend for all of these workers and for 1300 hundred others because of its wage increases and better health insurance.

Airport workers still face serious challenges ahead

But for Tamekah Shivers and other concession workers it’s a time of both good news and bad news. The good news is that thanks to their labor contract, they have taken some big steps up the economic ladder. For other airport concession workers, that contract gives hope that they too could organize a union and match or perhaps exceed the terms that HMS Host agreed to.

The bad news is that the economic ladder upward is being kicked out from under them.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, through the Chicago Department of Aviation, has put out bids for 3/4 of the concessions at O’Hare and Midway, an approximately $250 million dollar bonanza. That means that HMS Host could lose its concession to a cutthroat competitor and the workers replaced with cheaper non-union labor.

This has already happened to janitors working at O’Hare. The city recently signed a contract with United Maintenance Company to do work formerly performed by the unionized Scrub company. United Maintenance is non-union, pays only $12 an hour and is not required to hire the janitors who worked at Scrub.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is deeply anti-union

The city rejected several unionized janitorial companies in favor of the non-union United Maintenance who pays less. This does not bode well for  unionized concessionaires like HMS Host.

Rahm’s war on a living wage has also affected retail workers. When retail book and periodical sales were contracted out to Hudson’s at O’Hare’s international terminal, the company fired higher paid older workers with a total of 60 years combined experience. Margaret Shields was among those terminated:

“Honestly, I really don’t know but I’m trying to do my best. I have to figure out how to make the groceries stretch each month by being creative with the meals I cook. I won’t always have bus fare to send my kids back and forth to school. My son is a senior in high school so I have a lot of senior fees and prom expenses. I don’t know how I’ll be able to pay them.”

Chicago’s Weak Living Wage Ordinance

While Chicago does have a Living Wage ordinance, it does not cover Midway and O’Hare airports. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who normally carries the Chicago City Council around in his back pocket, could have easily closed that loophole. But Rahm’s allegiance is not to Chicago’s working class majority, but to the corporate and financial elite to whom he doles out contracts and privatizes public services so they may feast on tax dollars.

Airport worker Kimberly Junior explains why paying airport workers a living wage is so important to all of working class Chicago:

“My company is based overseas. Their VP made 3.5 million last year. None of that money benefits Chicago. But if I make more money, I spend that right here in Logan Square, where I live.”

According to the UNITE-HERE Local 1, 70% of the O’Hare and Midway concessions are owned by multinational corporations, while 75% of the passengers who buy from airport concessions are from outside of Chicago. That means money is flowing out of the city instead of being invested in Chicago’s working class neighborhoods where it is most needed.

The Proposed Stable Jobs, Stable Airports Ordinance

This is why the union is supporting the Stable Jobs, Stable Airports Ordinance.

The Stable Jobs ordinance would achieve the following:
1.It would close the loophole which allows airport companies to avoid Chicago’s living wage law.
2.It would give present airport workers a chance to hold on to their jobs.
3.It would prevent revenue disruptions from poorly managed concession changeovers.

In a cost benefit study of the Stable Jobs, Stable Airports Ordinance researchers concluded that it could generate 6 million dollars in increased Chicagoland buying power. Eighteen other city airports have similar laws and they are working well.

Jesus Valle, a 32­ year employee at O’Hare Airport explains it this way:

“What the Stable, Jobs Stable Airports ordinance does is something that has been done in many other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland and more. What it does is ensures that the most valuable part of the airport ­ the people who work there ­ will always be there. It means that Chicago wants to invest in us, invest in our families and invest in our neighborhoods by supporting good jobs.”

Chicago’s weak economy needs living wage jobs

Chicago’s struggling working class neighborhoods have been beset by all manner of social problems, especially after the de-industrialization of the 1980s and the 2008 financial crash. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has only added to the destabilization of these communities through his attacks on public schools, public libraries and public mental health clinics. Now he seems determined to slash the wages of Chicago’s airport workers.

In a market economy city governments have the power to direct both public and private investment toward employment that benefits the general welfare of the city. A prosperous working class means better support for local small and medium-sized businesses. It means a working class population who have time and resources for their families, their education and their personal relaxation. It means they have more time for civic engagement in social and political activism.

City Hall’s economic policies are fundamentally racist

Many of the airport workers are people of color in a city with a long history of racism. Chicago’s racialized poverty is the result of decisions taken to enrich the few at the expense of the many. A sound urban economic policy would work toward overcoming Chicago’s racial apartheid. This could reduce social tensions in the city and go a long ways toward reducing the murderous violence that has turned some of  our neighborhoods into war zones. Chicago’s powerful business community has long profited off of this apartheid and the divisions it has created.

Rahm and the LaSalle Street financial elite are using government to push a racist economic agenda that is bleeding the life out of a great city. Their low-wage strategy pushes the largely black and latino working class out of neighborhoods slated for gentrification and the “return of the middle class”. It is well understood that “middle class” means affluent white people. A more rational strategy would be to encourage a unionized living wage economy for people already here.

I attended a rally for Chicago’s airport workers at the Chicago Temple in October where even some normally tame Chicago City Council members denounced what is happening to airport workers and the broader low wage strategy so beloved by Mayor Emanuel. After the speeches a crowd of about 300 walked across the street and into City Hall. They applauded immigrant rights activist Rudy Lozano Jr. who delivered a strong verbal message outside of the City Council chambers:

“We are all here today because we know we have to save the jobs of airport workers. But we know that’s not good enough. We have a bigger fight on our hands. We need not only good jobs in airports, we need good jobs everywhere!”

Amen, Rudy.

Bob Simpson is a former student and union activist at the University of Maryland. He is a retired history teacher now working part-time with Estelle Carol producing Carol Simpson Labor Cartoons. A member of the Gray Panthers, he views his semi-retirement as a wonderful opportunity to raise more hell than ever.

Sources consulted

Airports Go Green … And, Labor Leaders Fear, Bust Unions by Kari Lydersen

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Chicago’s Proposed Stable Jobs, Stable AirportsOrdinance by Virginia Parks, Jack Metzgar, Ron Baiman and William Sites

City leaders join hundreds of O’Hare, Midway workers for hearing by Jim Baker

New Contract Spells Good News for 1,200 Chicago Airport Workers—Unless City Moots It by Kari Lydersen

Greg Dennis: “I was proud of making a living on my own”

Margaret Shields: “I enjoy giving a good impression of our great city”

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