In the 2012 presidential election, voters put forth a clear mandate: We want a more prosperous country, where everyone can work for a living, support their families and have a fair shot at a better life. As we demand that elected leaders create policies to make this happen, they--and corporations--should remember people like Randy Odum, a skycap at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), whose story is emblematic of the plunging wages in the service sector that have contributed to the decline of the once-great American middle class.
Randy started working for Continental Airlines in 1986. By 1995, he was making $21 an hour, had health insurance and earned enough to buy a house with room for his growing family; to send his three kids to college and to put a little aside for retirement.
Today, at 59, Odum still works as a skycap greeting passengers and helping them with their luggage. Only now, Odum works for an airline contractor and earns just $15 an hour. When adjusted for inflation, that's less than half of what he made in 1996. What happened to the air transportation industry, and workers like Randy who keep it going, is happening through the private sector and it's destroying the American middle class.
Among skycaps, Odum is one of the lucky ones. Nationally, too many contracted employees at airports earn just above minimum wage . The reason for the decline in wages for airport employees is simple: Airlines, like many other employers, outsource a great deal of their work to contractors that promise to do the work for less. The move started a race to the bottom as airlines outsourced work then turned a blind eye to contractors as they slashed wages and eliminated employee benefits.
For Odum and hundreds of thousands of workers at airports all over the country, it means they no longer have health insurance. And despite doing the same work, they earn a great deal less. Worried about their future, workers are in a fighting mood.
They are fighting contractors such as Aviation Safeguards (AVSG) at LAX, which recently announced their intention to eliminate all healthcare benefits for their workers next month. When contractors such as AVSG lower standards for workers it penalizes employers who do the right thing. This race to the bottom isn't just happening at LAX; it's happening at airports all over the country, including Boston's Logan, Seattle-Tacoma and New York's JFK.
If we are to expand the middle class, workers like Odum must thrive, and rogue companies should be held accountable for stripping their workers of health insurance and good wages, and reaping the benefits of employees' hard work.
It won't be easy. It will take a great deal of determination and courage by a great number of people. We need elected leaders to stand with us to make sure that rogue employers cannot get away with destroying the middle class without consequences.
This week, as we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, I will be travelling to Los Angeles to stand with Randy Odum and other LAX workers as they fight to hold on to their piece of the American Dream. Hundreds of people from many walks of life are expected to descend on LAX the day before Thanksgiving to protest renegade contractors that slash workers' family healthcare and refuse to respect their workers or the law.
Randy and his fellow workers know that if we are to expand the middle class and get the economy going again, we must demand that irresponsible contractors invest in workers who keep their companies going. It's time for contractors not only to understand this, but to step up and make it happen as their uniquely important contribution to restoring the American middle class.
Follow Mary Kay Henry on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marykayhenry