EAST ELMHURST, Queens — It's a hot button issue for thousands of workers across the Tri-State, and now, hundreds of them have decided to take action to try and get their hourly wage raised to $15.00.
On Tuesday morning, airport security guards and other airport workers announced that they'd voted to go on strike. They'll begin picketing on Wednesday night at JFK Airport, and Thursday morning at LaGuardia. The reason it's so important, according to their union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ, can be heard in the stories of employees who say they need to walk off the job.
"I have two kids," said airport worker Channee Cooper about why she voted for the strike. "I need to take care of my kids. I live in a shelter, so I'm going to do what I have to do to get out of that situation."
Cooper is a wheelchair attendant at LaGuardia Airport. She coordinates wheelchairs and passengers to get them on their proper flights at the Delta Airlines terminal.
Starting Thursday at the Delta and United Airlines facilities at LaGuardia, and Wednesday at British Air and Delta at JFK, workers in Cooper's position, as well as baggage handlers and security guards, will be off the job, to the dismay of some passengers.
"Someone like her, a traveler, a senior traveler ...would be handicapped," said Mamta Mehta, as she pointed to her mother, who was using an airport wheelchair to get around the United Airlines section of Terminal B. Without wheelchair attendants to help out, said Mehta, her mother "would be handicapped and would not be able to travel by herself."
About a thousand workers at SEIU 32BJ voted on Tuesday to strike this week. The vote was part of a larger national movement to have more workers paid $15.00 an hour. "So we can show our company we just want respect," said Cooper, the soon-to-be-picketing wheelchair attendant. "Show us that respect."
The company to which she referred is Aviation Safeguards, which has the contract for security, wheelchair and baggage work at the affected JFK and LaGuardia facilities. Workers told PIX11 News that Aviation Safeguards parent company, Command Security Corporation, posted a letter to employees, of which PIX11 News has obtained a copy, that told employees that if they tried to take any labor action against the company, such as planning to strike for higher wages, they "may be disciplined or even fired." That is illegal, according to the union.
However, according to Command Security's CEO, the situation is different than the union describes. "First of all, it's not true," said Craig Coy, the CEO. "There is a well established, well known, long-time held process under law, under regulation as to how unions should go about organizing a work force. None of that has happened here.
"We pay the wages [required by] the Port Authority," Coy continued, which is $10.10 per hour. He also said that some union employees make even more, and that they are all covered by the Affordable Care Act, which is supplemented by corporate payments.
"We're going well beyond the minimum in terms of compensation," Coy told PIX11 News.
However, the striking workers said that the $10.10 they get paid is the result of protests they'd carried out in recent years calling for wages above the state minimum wage, which is $8.75 in New York.
Their strike is part of a larger movement that has been holding protests for the last few years, calling for a $15.00 wage for most service industry workers. Their efforts are expected to reach fruition on Wednesday, when a New York State panel is expected to approve a $15.00 hourly wage for fast food workers statewide. That amount is expected to be phased in over time, with workers' pay checks reflecting that amount sometime next year.