12/20/2013 11:08 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Why Airport Workers Must Have MLK Day as a Paid Holiday

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while in Memphis fighting on behalf of striking sanitation workers. Every year, we pause on his birthday to remember his heartfelt courage and honor his boundless legacy. Millions of Americans have the day off as a paid holiday.

Contracted New York City area airport workers do not. In fact, in addition to being paid poverty wages without health care benefits or paid sick days, they have no paid holidays -- not even to honor Dr. King, who was murdered while supporting men who were poorly paid and working under deplorable conditions.

That is wrong, and that's why hundreds of contracted area airports have taken their complaints directly to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates John F. Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International airports - and which has the power to raise standards.

Workers say they picked MLK Day 2014 because of its symbolism.

"Dr. King died supporting Memphis sanitation workers who were working under deplorable conditions and making what today would be $11.41 per hour," says Prince Jackson, a security officer at JFK Airport for contractor AirServ. "46 years after Dr. King's death, I earn $8 an hour. Most airport workers earn just $8 per hour. We also work under deplorable conditions. We are here to say our issues must be addressed, starting Martin Luther King Day 2014."

They want Martin Luther King Day in 2014, which is January 20, declared a paid holiday as a first step that the agency will take their concerns seriously. It is a moral imperative that these workers get that day off. Poverty wages and poor treatment of contracted airport workers is just as much a civil rights issue as was the Memphis garbage strike or the lunch counter sit-ins of the Deep South.

These conditions are creating a crisis at the airports for workers and passengers alike. The workers' airlines and terminal operators have caused the crisis by contracting security, cleaning and other functions at the airports to companies that pay poverty wages -- which are significantly less than those directly employed by the airlines and the Port Authority.

Passenger service workers employed by private contractors like Airway Cleaners/Alstate Maintenance, PrimeFlight, AirServ and Aviation Safeguard say they then want the Port Authority to address their larger concerns about poverty wages and inadequate to non-existent benefits.

A new report by University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that the outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled between 2002 and 20012, while wages dropped by 45 percent. Outsourcing of cleaning jobs more than doubled in that same period while wages fell 25 percent. The report says, nationally, more than one in three airport workers lives in poverty and relies on public assistance to make ends meet.

The workers at JFK, La Guardia and Newark have been fighting for respect and dignity for more than two years. There was nearly a strike last Christmas, but the Port Authority intervened and said there would be discussions with the workers. Little has happened since -- other than wages staying stagnant and the cost of living going up.

That's why the workers are taking a stand, and last Thursday they brought their complaints directly to the Port Authority.

They want their voices to be heard.

The Port Authority has the power to raise standards at the airports, ask contractors to pay better wages and allow the contracted workers some paid holidays.

It is the right thing to do. And this step of declaring Dr. King's birthday a paid holiday for all airport workers would be a fitting tribute to a man who fought some of the greatest civil rights battles of our time.