BY TRISHA SAKHUJA
Thirty-two federal, State and City elected leaders, clergy and airport workers were arrested on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after protesting to bring dignity, fairness and economic justice to the contracted employees.
One thousand people marched in unison towards the bridge to LaGuardia Airport with banners that read “MLK: Our Day.” Together they chanted, “The workers united will never be defeated,” and “We want change and we don’t mean pennies.”
The march, organized by 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents building service employees, blocked traffic at 94th Street and Ditmars Boulevard, after the workers asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in December to make the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday for contracted passenger service workers at LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark International airports.
According to the union, the airlines have repeatedly refused to correct the situation. 32BJ SEIU is asking the Port Authority to step in and put systematic solutions in place.
The protesters are among the 12,000 workers at New York City-area airports who are employed by contractors and earn poverty wages without affordable health care benefits or paid sick days.
Included among the many elected officials who were arrested after participating in civil disobedience, the few to represent Queens were Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) and Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica).
“In New York City, it is impossible to raise a family, put food on the table and send your child to college on a minimum wage salary,” Van Bramer later said in a written statement. “My act of civil disobedience on the 94th Street Bridge outside of LaGuardia airport was out of solidarity with airport workers who are being treated unfairly.”
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan) was also one of the elected officials to participate in the civil disobedience and was later arrested by the police.
“What we have to do is make certain that there is a livable wage for people to be able to send their kids to a decent school,” he said. “No one should be one paycheck away to homelessness. It’s not how we treat each other; it’s how we treat our lesser brothers and sisters.”
Before Rangel was arrested, he said, “I am ready to be put in jail today so that everyone will know that we are going to fight for decent wages [and] we are going to fight for sick days and pensions.”
Andrew Lloyd, a cabin cleaner contracted by Airway Cleaners, said he makes $8 per hour only because of the New York State’s minimum wage.
“I find it nonsense that I have a full time job, but I have to seek public assistance,” he said. “I have to work overtime just to support my family. I have no sick days. I have no paid vacation days.”
Derick Swaby, an employee for PrimeFlight Airline Services at Newark Airport, said he started working for the company for merely $7.25 per hour, but this year he said he makes $8.25 per hour, which is solely due to the State’s increase in minimum wage and not his company.
“It’s 46 years after the passing of Dr. Martin Luther King; we are still struggling to get decent wages,” he said. “Today is an important day in a workers’ life and we don’t even get paid for today.”
Public Advocate Letita James stepped up to the podium loudly chanting, “No Justice, No Peace.”
“Dr. King would have been out here demanding fair wages,” she said. “Dr. King would have been here today demanding that we have a paid holiday. Dr. King was against income inequality. Dr. King died marching for sanitation workers. Dr. King died because he believed that we should not have a country where people are living with poverty wages.”
She said they urge the Port Authority to do what is right because too many airport workers are living on food stamps and public assistance.
SEIU’s president, Hector Figueroa, who started the march after speaking, said the work of Dr. King is not finished 50 years later because workers in the airport living in this economy are still earning poverty wages. “We stand together to say enough is enough,” he said. “We are living people and we deserve better.”
The Port Authority was unable to comment in time for press.
Reach Trisha Sakhuja at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, email@example.com, or @Tsakhuja13.