Progress Illinois provides highlights from Thursday's contract workers' strike at O'Hare International Airport, which included security officers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, custodians and wheelchair attendants. The workers held a one-day strike against "unfair labor practices."
A group of workers at O'Hare International Airport hit the picket lines Thursday for a daylong strike against alleged "unfair labor practices" by their employers.
The contracted security officers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, custodians and wheelchair attendants protested with their allies at SEIU* Local 1. They marched in a circle outside airport terminals this morning chanting, "Poverty wages, they won't fly! We need $15 to get by."
The non-unionized workers are pushing for higher wages, health care benefits and improved job training. They also called for an end to alleged retaliation by their employers, including Universal Security, Prospect Airport Services, and Scrub, Inc., for speaking out about work conditions and organizing.
"Workers have been trying to use their collective strength to better their conditions, which they're allowed under the law, and their employers have retaliated in different ways," SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff told Progress Illinois. "They've written workers up. They've suspended them. So today, workers are striking to say, 'Enough of that.'"
Unfair labor charges over employer retaliation allegations have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board, union officials said.
SEIU Local 1 spokeswoman Izabela Miltko said the striking workers earn hourly wages between $6.50 for tipped workers, including wheelchair attendants, up to just over $12 an hour for security workers. The workers receive no health care benefits or paid sick days, she said.
Sadaf Subijano, 42, a security guard at O'Hare of 20 years, walked off the job Thursday. Subijano, who earns $12.13 an hour, says she has experienced alleged retaliation by Universal Security for union activity. She claims she has been scheduled for double shifts without proper notice and reassigned to a new location at the airport since engaging in organizing efforts.
"I never worked [on the] outside airfield. Bam! I'm on the airfield," she said. "Just like that."
Subijano said she and her co-workers are asked to provide a doctor's note when they request time off when they are sick. But it's often hard for workers, who receive no health care benefits or paid sick days, to get such a note, Subijano said. Many workers do not want or cannot afford to pay out of pocket for a doctor's visit, she explained.
"When we work outside in the airfield, it's freezing. We get sick. And we get harassed by them to go bring [a] doctor's statement," she said. "You have to pay out of your pocket to do those things. And a lot of people just want to relax and come in the next day when you feel better."
Contracted employees at O'Hare plus eight other U.S. airports are participating in daylong strikes Thursday as part of the SEIU-backed Airport Workers United campaign. Airport workers with the nationwide campaign want a $15 minimum wage and union recognition.
Chicago Alds. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and Anthony Napolitano (41st) stood in solidarity with the O'Hare workers this morning.
"Workers in the city of Chicago deserve a $15 living wage," Ramirez-Rosa said. "I'm here today to put these irresponsible employers, and to put these contractors, on notice: You respect these workers. You provide for their safety, and you give them a $15 minimum wage. Because Chicago belongs to the people. O'Hare belongs to the workers that make it work. It doesn't belong to the billionaire class and their greed."
Check out scenes from the protest, including additional comments from Ramirez-Rosa, Balanoff and Marcie Barnett, a Universal Security officer at O'Hare:
Also on the picket lines was Raquel Brito, 21, a baggage handler at O'Hare with Prospect Airport Services. She earns $11 an hour, $1 more than Chicago's hourly minimum wage of $10.
Her aunt and grandmother also work at O'Hare and earn similar wages.
"We are tired of struggling just to get by," Brito said. "Raising standards at O'Hare will make a better airport for everyone. It will mean airport workers wouldn't need to rely on public assistance to make ends meet."
Messages seeking comment in response to the strike were left with Universal Security, Prospect Airport Services and Scrub.
UPDATE 1 (5:17 p.m.): The Chicago City Council's Progressive Caucus voiced its support for the O'Hare workers Thursday. The aldermen urged the city's Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans to meet with the striking workers to learn more about their grievances.
Members of the Progressive Caucus also released statements regarding the strike:
"These Chicagoans do difficult, demanding work, serving the public and behind the scenes," said Ald. Nick Sposato (38), whose ward is one of the closest to O'Hare. "They are not unionized and many are employed by private companies which are contracted to provide services at the airport. When they try to organize a union, these companies resort to intimidation and firings."
"We hope that Commissioner Evans will sit down with them and listen to their concerns, and make sure they are addressed quickly and effectively," said Ald. John Arena (45), whose ward also sits near O'Hare.
"These workers deserve a decent hourly wage and protections for their health and safety," said Ald. Toni Foulkes (16). "They are not asking for anything unreasonable or outrageous, and must be heard and respected."
"O'Hare is the gateway to Chicago for millions of people from all over the planet. And these workers create their initial impressions of our city," said Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22). "Yet O'Hare does not treat them well, despite being one of our city's most lucrative assets. It's time to right this wrong. We stand in solidarity with the striking workers."
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