BY NATALIA KOZIKOWSKA
In September of last year, Wendy Arellano, a Queens mother of two, had to make one of the most difficult decisions in her life.
“I had to send my kids to live with my mother in Long Island. They were spending too much time by themselves,” she said. “I couldn’t be a good mother because I had to make money. I couldn’t do both. I had to do one or the other.”
Arellano, a cabin cleaner at LaGuardia Airport, is just one of 12,000 Queens airport workers who say they are struggling to make ends meet with their low hourly wages from the airport subcontractors at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airports.
“It’s hard for me because I do miss them a lot, but I know they are doing fine and at least this way, they are not struggling with food. When they lived with me, it wasn’t fair to them because I couldn’t buy them what they needed,” she said. “We have families we have to take care of and $9 an hour is just not enough – especially for me, being a single mother.”
Tapping into the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement marches, on April 4, hundreds of airport passenger service workers, including Arellano, rallied from JFK Airport to LaGuardia Airport, a 10-mile walk, to protest for higher wages and work benefits.
The rally, organized by the advocacy group 32BJ SEIU, comes just weeks after the Martin Luther King Day civil disobedience mass-arrest of protestors on the 94th Street Bridge across from LaGuardia Airport. In commemoration, workers at the protest held up signs reading “I am a man” and “I am a woman” in English and in Spanish.
“Every step that we took is a step towards our goal and it’s without a doubt that we will see change,” said speaker Shareeka Elliott, one of the 32 protestors taken into police custody at the Jan. 20 march. “Dr. King did more than I did, so to do this is not great sacrifice – just like it was no great sacrifice to get arrested here, just over this bridge.”
A number of elected officials from the Borough also took part in the rally to show their support and urge airport subcontractors to offer their employees livable wages.
“I’m here to say that I’m with you 100 percent. You’re making history today,” said Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows). “Dr. Martin Luther King died fighting for workers [and] what you did today by walking 10 miles, something that the bosses at the airport would never have done, you stood up for your rights and for justice – for men and women to be treated fairly.”
“Dr. King said you should not have a full-time job and receive part-time salaries,” echoed Councilman Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), who chairs the City Council’s civil service and labor committee. “He said that more than 40 years ago, and we’re still fighting the same fight today. The difference is today, you have a group of City councilmen and the administration standing with you, understanding the value of working people.”
The LaGuardia and JFK airport workers have begun a countdown to April 28 – the expiration date for a 90-day deadline set forth by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for major carriers and their contractors to come up with a plan to offer employees sustainable wages.
The workers have already seen some progress in their efforts. Most recently, the Port Authority implemented a policy to reform worker wages and benefits for the employees of some contractors.
Delta was the first to sign on to the plan, offering its JFK airport employees a $1 raise as of March 1. American Airlines soon followed, but its workers have not yet received the $1 raise.
In contrast, JetBlue Airlines has refused the policy and United Airlines, the region’s most dominant carrier with 70 percent of the passenger traffic at Newark Airport, has remained silent on the proposals.
Reach Natalia Kozikowska at (718)357-7400 Ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.