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Low-wage Logan workers meet with elected officials, press case for union membership, fair pay

Nate Homan
Low-wage Logan workers meet with elected officials, press case for union membership, fair pay
State Treasurer and Gubernatorial candidate Steve Grossman fired up the crowd at the SEIU 32JB meeting, telling local leaders they’re either with the workers or against them.

Gubernatorial candidates Attorney General Martha Coakley and Treasurer Steve Grossman joined local politicians in supporting and listening to the grievances of the low wage-earning, non-union workers at Logan Airport at the SEIU 32BJ Local 615 headquarters in downtown Boston last week.

Baggage handlers, wheelchair assistants, terminal custodians, aircraft cabin custodians, ticket checkers and other employees have demanded better wages, healthcare, paid sick days and a union contract with their employers for months now. These employees earn less than $10 an hour in what they claim are unsafe and unhygienic conditions.

“There’s hundreds of workers at Logan Airport who are struggling to escape the cycle of poverty by working for $8 or $9 an hour with no benefits,” SEIU 32BJ Director Roxana Rivera said.

“We are here to say that we are going to join them in their fight for dignity. Even after months of employees demanding action from their employers, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We are joining their fight to form a union. If we don’t act, they will continue to be stuck in a system that condemns them to a life of poverty.”

Airline companies have hired private contractors, engaging in what the activists say is a race to the bottom for their employees while they cut costs at the expense of worker’s health and safety. Cabin cleaners have reported exposure to hazardous cleaning chemicals and bodily fluids without proper protective gear or adequate training. Baggage handlers regularly report injuries to their shoulders and backs, but are not allowed to take sick days.

ReadyJet, one of the largest employers of airport workers nation wide, was cited by OSHA in 2014 for two health and safety violations at Logan Airport and was fined $2,000. OSHA issued ReadyJet citations in 2012 for five health and safety violations in Orlando International Airport as well. Coakley’s office ordered ReadyJet to pay employees a total of $13,045 restitution plus a $5,000 civil penalty for unpaid overtime, straight time, training hours, vacations and failure to provide breaks for workers working 10-hour shifts.

Grossman spoke first, pumping up the crowd by chanting, “we will win,” “stand together,” and “si se puede.” He praised the workers who provide the most basic services, saying, “without these men and women, Logan Airport would shut down.”

The Treasurer issued harsh words, drawing a line in the sand against public officials who hadn’t joined in the fight.

“Every public official who isn’t standing with us today is standing on the other side. There are not three sides to this issue; there are two: You’re either with the workers or you’re not with the workers.”

In this coming November, voters will have a chance to vote on Question Four which asks for earned five days sick time for workers.

Grossman said the Machinist Union Local 1726 in East Boston have been negotiating with the airlines because the workers he met with are making less money today than they were in 1999. Local 1726 sent representatives to Thursday’s meeting to show their solidarity with the maintenance workers in pushing for better working conditions.

“If I am elected governor of Massachusetts, and we don’t have recognition of 32BJ as the representative union for these workers, I will stand with you every step of the way until MassPort and those businesses understand. If the business owners don’t recognize the importance of their workers, we will make it happen.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley called on the airline companies, advocating for better pay and safer working conditions at Logan.

Attorney General Coakley said that instead of worrying about sick time and minimum wage, the airline bosses are probably on vacation because it’s August.

“They are not worried about their rent. They are not worried about sick time. They are not worried about making a life. And that is unfair.”

Coakley said that she spoke to a couple who work at Logan, the man works the night shift and the woman works the day shift to put food on the table for their teenage son.

“It’s time that people who are working hard just to make a living have a chance to organize to make a living wage and get ahead like everyone in this country,” Coakley said. “We need to make sure that working men and women have the opportunity to get on the ladder to climb up for a fair shot at a better life. That’s what this country is about.”

Attorney General candidate Warren Tolman pledged his support for people demanding better wages and safer working conditions as well.

“What’s happening at Logan Airport today is a disgrace,” Tolman said. “I will stand with the workers as I have time and again. This is a race to the bottom, and we’ll get to the bottom if we don’t stand together in the face of these unfair and unsafe practices.”

The candidates’ fighting words elicited loud cheers from the audience in both Spanish and English. While state officials up for election used the gathering as a platform for their campaigns, local legislators pledged their solidarity with the outraged workers as well.

“We’ve bailed out these airlines so many times just in my lifetime,” City Councilor Tito Jackson said. “They have not had our backs even after this. We need to understand that transportation infrastructure is what brings money and jobs into Boston and the state of Massachusetts. If there has to be a fight, I am definitely ready to throw down with whoever we have to if it’s MassPort or the folks under the golden dome in order to ensure that everyone of these workers has a livable wage.”

Employees and advocates alike shared their experiences with reoccurring horror stories and inequities. The Massachusetts Coalition for Safety and Health conducted a survey of working conditions of airport workers last year. Thirty-five to 40 workers questioned told MASSCOSH surveyors about the daily hazards, some of which result in back aches and sore shoulders due to a lack of proper employee training.

“People who go to clean the jets between flights find needles, excrement and do so without proper respiratory protection or sanitary protection for their arms and hands,” Rich Rabin of MASSCOSH said.

“They push wheelchairs whose brakes don’t work. Workers are taken to parts of the airport in overcrowded vans, sitting on each other’s laps, not seat belted in. All of this is a violation of OSHA and other federal regulations.”