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As Airport Business Takes Off, Are Workers Getting Left Behind?

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BALTIMORE -- Yaseen Abdul-Malik has spent the last seven years working at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. His friends and family often remark upon how well he must be doing for himself. This always makes Abdul-Malik laugh. They seem to cling to an outdated notion of the airport as a fancy place for the well-heeled, where money trickles down from first class to the working class.

"I get it from my father, my brothers, my friends," Abdul-Malik, a 28-year-old native of Baltimore, said. "'Oh, you working at the airport? You got two jobs? You doing good! You rolling in the money!'

"It ain't like that, man."

Abdul-Malik does, in fact, have two jobs at the airport. One is at a Potbelly Sandwich Shop, where he works full-time for $11.98 an hour, and the other is at McDonald's, where he works part-time for $7.80 an hour. His failure to secure another modest raise has Abdul-Malik thinking he may have to give up his apartment downtown for something cheaper and less convenient. He doesn't believe airport shops and food courts are the economic generators that they're often pitched as.

"Airports, they do bring jobs," he said. "They just bring low-wage jobs. It's not something you can live off of."

Airports are often pitched by politicians as boons for local economies -- creating jobs and offering a massive, captive audience assured by long pre-flight waits. Today, the American airport increasingly resembles the American shopping mall. Like Abdul-Malik's friends, some people may equate airports with good-paying union jobs, but many of the new positions offer low wages and few benefits, leaving plenty of workers near the poverty line. And unlike a fast-food job in a regular restaurant, a fast-food airport job comes with extra hassles like long commutes and a daily security screening. It's a reality unions -- and voters, like those in SeaTac, Wash. -- are noticing.

At BWI the major concessions contract is held by a firm aptly named Airmall. (The company is not to be confused with SkyMall, the ubiquitous in-flight shopping magazine.) Like other airports that have moved more toward looking like malls, BWI now includes everything from Jamba Juice and Samuel Adams Brewhouse to Brooks Brothers and Johnston & Murphy. Airmall's motto is "Regular Mall Prices... Guaranteed." The company promises that you won't pay more for your Auntie Anne's cinnamon-sugar pretzel at BWI than you would at, say, Mondawmin Mall in Northwest Baltimore.

Like in the malls across town, a lot of the food and service jobs at BWI are occupied by young people from Baltimore like Abdul-Malik. The wages aren't a whole lot different at a McDonald's in BWI from a McDonald's in Baltimore's Inner Harbor; many of the concessions jobs pay close to minimum wage. What is different are some unique inconveniences.

Without better options close to home, many workers commute nearly two hours each way from neighborhoods like West Baltimore, taking the bus to the light rail. If they're lucky enough to have a car, many workers pay a parking premium at the airport each month, which is deducted from their paychecks. Just like any traveler headed to the gate, they also need to go through a security checkpoint each day before they can clock in. When business slows, they often get dismissed early. The logistical hassles sometimes make it better to nap at the airport between shifts than to trek home and back.

Given the drawbacks, Abdul-Malik said he wonders why the pay doesn't come at more of a premium, with more reliable hours and more benefits. Plenty of other workers at BWI have asked the same question, providing an opening for Unite Here, a hospitality labor union that is currently trying to organize the concessions workers. The union previously represented much of BWI's workforce, but lost them in recent years as contracts changed hands. As In These Times reported last month, the union has brought workers like Abdul-Malik on board with the effort, and also filed unfair labor practice claims against vendors in the airport.

Airports are usually owned and operated by state or local governments, while their funding comes through airline fees and taxes attached to rental cars, concessions and the like. Given their quasi-public nature as investments, some governments have established basic standards for airport work, like minimum wages that are higher than the surrounding areas.

The city of SeaTac, Wash., made national news in November when voters approved a measure mandating a minimum wage of $15 for more than 6,000 airport and hospitality workers in and around the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. After businesses sued to block it, a judge partly upheld the measure late last month, leaving the minimum wage to apply to 1,600 hotel and car-lot workers but not 4,700 concessionaire and contract workers at the airport. Labor and business groups had poured millions into the ballot fight.

In that battle, advocates for the increased minimum wage claimed one particular scourge had depressed pay at the airport: subcontracting. Alaska Airlines had let go of hundreds of unionized ramp workers at SeaTac who'd been employees of the airline, outsourcing the work to a contractor. One baggage handler told the site LaborNotes that he'd been making $21 per hour in 2005 while a direct hire, and that his wage had dropped to $9.50 for the same job last year under the subcontracting arrangement.

A report released in November by the University of California, Berkeley found that the growth of outsourcing at airports has degraded what were traditionally good-paying and stable middle-class jobs. The outsourcing of baggage porter jobs, for instance, had more than tripled over the course of a decade, with wages tumbling by 45 percent. More than a third of airport cleaning workers now live in or near poverty, the authors wrote. (The report was funded in part by the Service Employees International Union, which also represents airport workers.)

At BWI, the union claims the food and retail workers are squeezed by the state's contracting arrangement for concessions. The Maryland Aviation Administration, which owns and operates the airport, used to contract directly with a large firm that operated the shops and restaurants inside terminals. But in 2004, the governing body outsourced the management duties to Airmall, which, in turn, now leases space to individual contractors. Under former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, Airmall's contract was extended to 2022.

Ehrlich's successor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has criticized Airmall for the wages that the airport's service workers earn. But Airmall is quick to point out that it doesn't set workers' wages. Nor does it actually employ the workers at BWI, or at the international airports in Boston, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, where it also has contracts. Brett Kelly, an Airmall vice president and head of the company's BWI operations, said that under Airmall, the number of concessions jobs has tripled at the airport, from about 500 to 1,500.

"We're proud of our record here, and we're proud of our record of growing jobs," Kelly said. "Through competition and through growing the pie, we create more business for everybody. What that means for workers is that good workers are always in demand. And competition for good workers is good for workers."

Airmall may not set wages, but it does help set prices. Through its price guarantee, which it enforces through audits, the company caps what its vendors can charge passengers for the lattes, dress shirts and whatever else they purchase on the fly. The guarantee is an obvious boon to passengers, who, as Kelly notes, can "comfortably spend their discretionary money here if they know they're not being -- frankly -- ripped off."

The downside, in the union's eyes, is that the price cap cramps concessionaires, helping put a ceiling on wages. Workers like Abdul-Malik may believe airport work should come with a modest premium, but the Airmall guarantee doesn't allow for a premium on prices. Unite Here sees Airmall as an added and unnecessary middleman, leaving a smaller pie for workers on the ground floor. The union has staged protests against Airmall just as BWI undertakes a $125 million expansion to allow for more international flights.

"AirMall has failed to create a program with quality jobs at BWI," Roxie Herbekian, president of Unite Here Local 7, told HuffPost. "We're looking to the state of Maryland to help us solve these problems."

There's another obvious reason for Unite Here to dislike Airmall: The developer model makes it harder for workers to unionize. Whereas most of the concessions workers used to fall under a single employer, they are now formally employed by dozens of different firms, leaving workers in each of the different shops to establish their own collective bargaining contracts.

Kelly, of Airmall, said the company takes no position on workers unionizing. "If employees of any individual shop chose to seek union representation, we would honor that," he said. "Frankly, it's very simply not for us to decide."

Unite Here had won an election at BWI but hadn't yet won an airport-wide contract when Airmall took over in 2004, splintering the workforce. At the time, Betty Schuler had worked at restaurants in the airport for more than 30 years, having started out when "it was strictly male bartenders, and female cocktail waitress in little tutus, all size-3, 20-somethings." The money was always good. "Rumor on the street was that the best job was at the airport; the only thing was you had to wait until someone dies off, because that was the only way of getting one," she said.

Practically overnight, Schuler's bar, Rum Island, turned into Peppers Mexican Grill. "They shut it down for three days, put on a couple coats of paint, powerwashed it, and it became Pepper's," she recalled. She and dozens of her colleagues were let go and replaced with new workers. Schuler, now 58, said that despite all her applications, she hasn't managed to get another job at the airport -- a situation she attributed to her age and her previous role as a union shop steward.

According to Airmall, the only concessionaire in BWI that currently has a unionized workforce is Hudson News, the airport staple known for its magazines and candies.

Unite Here may try to pressure the airport authority and businesses into adopting a so-called labor peace agreement. In such an arrangement, the union agrees not to protest, strike or otherwise disrupt business, while employers agree not to pressure workers not to unionize. Labor peace agreements have been struck at the airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles, paving the way for union contracts.

Tony Brown, a 26-year-old line cook, said he'd like to have more bargaining power at his restaurant, a Mexican joint in Concourse B. Brown commutes two hours each way to his job. He's worked at the airport for five years. In that time, he said, his pay has gone up just $2.25 per hour, from $8.25 to $10.50. Like Abdul-Malik, he said his friends get the wrong impression about airport work. He's had to explain to people that he never gets free or discounted flights.

"All these different businesses are making all this money, but the people actually getting up in the morning and losing sleep and spending a lot of hours of their lives in the airport aren't really getting anything," Brown said. "My thing is, I want a future. The way it's structured now, these aren't future jobs. They aren't careers, but they could be."