08/07/2014 02:33 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

Success and Continued Struggle for Airport Workers

It's been quite a busy summer for those of us involved in the long fight to get economic justice for some 12,000 contracted airport workers making poverty wages at LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports.

This campaign, which has gone on for more than two-and-a-half years, has had some big successes, but we have a long, long way to go -- and we will be making a highly visible push across the city during the remainder of the summer and into the fall.

Things really took off this past Martin Luther King Day in January, when more than 30 workers, supporters, and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem were arrested for civil disobedience after blocking a bridge leading to La Guardia Airport in a rally for better pay, benefits, and the right to have MLK Day as a paid holiday.

The New York Daily News published a series of articles highlighting the plight of workers like Shareeka Elliot and Wendy Arellano, two young mothers trying to raise children on minimum wage salaries, or slightly higher. The series also noted that airline companies have received some $2.7 billion in taxpayer-subsidized loans over the past decade, while the contracted workers languished in poverty.

Soon after, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye told four major airlines -- Jet Blue, United, Delta and American -- to raise wages for those making under $9 an hour by $1, with a phase-in to $10.10 and to give the workers MLK Day as a paid holiday. He followed up with a directive calling for a long-term plan to improve wages and institute benefits for the workers, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners, and security guards who are employed by companies hired by the airlines.

So far, so good. The problem was that two of the airlines -- United and Jet Blue - refused. After public pressure from workers and communities, the airlines finally agreed to comply. But not all of the workers owed raises have received them yet so we will be pushing to make sure that they follow through.

And despite thousands of workers signing authorization cards in May demonstrating that they want SEIU Local 32BJ as their union, the contractors and the airlines have resisted.

That's why UnitedNY and some of our partners, like New York Communities for Change and Make the Road NY, are actively supporting the workers, who have launched a 100 Days of Action campaign to get all the contractors to provide the wage increases to all their workers -- and to negotiate a contract with 32BJ SEIU. In a recent blog post, Timothy Cardinal Dolan voiced support for the workers and their right to collective bargaining.

During the 100 Days of Action, which began last month with a huge rally at LaGuardia and ends on Sept. 30 -- the Port Authority's deadline to unveil a comprehensive plan --travelers will be seeing us in the three airports and elsewhere gathering signatures on petitions of support for the workers.

The petitions urge the airlines to direct contractors to implement the wage increases the Port has called for, work with contractors to develop a long-term plan that includes regular wage increases and real benefits like health care, and respect airport workers' rights to form a union. It also calls for the airlines to be "responsible corporate citizens," since we know that raising standards for airport workers will not only lift thousands of workers out of poverty, it will also support local economic growth and improve the quality of services for passengers traveling into and out of the New York region.

The campaign is part of a broader fight to support low-wage workers, including those who work in fast food restaurants and in car washes - and it will be a busy summer on those fronts as well.

Forty-six years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it was "criminal" that people working full-time jobs were making part-time pay. It is still true today -- and it's time that the hard-working men and women at the airports and elsewhere bring home enough money to support themselves and their families.