How One Local Union Is Doubling Wages For America’s Airport Workers

How One Local Union Is Doubling Wages for America’s Airport Workers

Andrea Bundy came to the United States from Jamaica in 2011 in pursuit of the American dream, but her first job in America—cleaning airline cabins at New York’s Kennedy Airport—turned out to be anything but a dream. Her pay was so low, just $7.25 an hour, that “I wasn’t able to afford the clothes for my daughter to be on the high school track team,” she says.

Bundy, a short, stocky woman, felt endlessly guilty that she couldn’t afford the $120 for running shoes, $50 for a tracksuit, plus money to send her daughter to out-of-town track meets. It was only thanks to a big-hearted track coach and the generosity of Bundy’s oldest sister that her daughter, Nicoleen, got her track gear, helping her become a star in the 200-meter sprint.

Bundy often worked 70-to-80-hour weeks to support herself and her daughter, toiling from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and then another eight hours on Saturday. “I felt bad. I wasn’t spending nearly enough time with my daughter,” Bundy says. “It was really tough.” Some days, she returned home so late from work that her daughter had already gone to sleep. (Another sister helped care for Nicoleen.)

Bundy had worked for a credit union in Jamaica, and she spent her first year in the U.S. applying for bank jobs and credit union jobs, to no avail. When she heard there were jobs at JFK—not far from the humble walk-up apartment where she lives—she landed a job as a cabin cleaner. But the job turned out to be far more grueling than she had expected.

In a typical eight-hour shift, she helps clean 7 to 12 planes, picking up trash left on seats and in seat pockets and mopping airplane bathrooms and pantries. She also has to get on her hands and knees to look under seats to make sure no one on the previous flight left a bomb or poison. Airlines sometimes plant fake bombs on the floor or wedged underneath a seat cushion, and if cabin cleaners fail to find them, they can get suspended or even lose their job.

“We have to check the entire plane, the overhead bins, under the seats, the backs of the seats,” Bundy says. She spoke in a deep, deliberate voice, leaning forward as she sat on a plain brown couch in her living room, alongside a paisley rug and modest TV. She estimated that during each eight-hour shift, she looks under 1,000 seats and pulls up 1,000 seat cushions to check underneath. “We have to be moving fast,” she says. “It’s exhausting. Most of the workers have back pain.” And now she says, the coronavirus outbreak has only increased the stress for cabin cleaners like her.

She tells of one co-worker who ran the “cleaning supplies cage” and complained to his boss because they had thrown so much work at him one day—he’d had to hand out cleaning materials to dozens of workers, track down missing supplies, do some sweeping in the terminal, and help clean a large plane. “They suspended him just because he complained,” Bundy says.

Bundy, 50, often recalls a winter day when the temperature had fallen close to zero. “My supervisor wanted us to travel in a van to the airplane, but the back of the van was so cold, I said to her, ‘We need some heat in the back.’ She responded, ‘If you don’t get in the effing back of the van, give me your ID and go home.’”

“We were treated like we’re not important, that management is always right, that we don’t have any rights,” she adds. “We had no say. We had no voice.”

That confrontation spurred Bundy to speak to a union organizer. For months, she had shunned an organizer who was approaching airport workers as they waited for JFK’s AirTrain on their way home. Before long, Bundy became a vigorous supporter of the unionization drive that a Manhattan-based union—Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union—had mounted to organize thousands of workers at JFK.

Bundy was fortunate. Most private-sector unionization campaigns fail, undone by obsolete labor laws that often thwart workers’ attempts to organize and by fierce opposition from their employers. But 32BJ decided to go all in, devoting sizable resources to the campaign and devising a strategy that mobilized workers and their allies to pressure government officials to raise the workers’ wages, which in turn built the momentum for unionization.

It worked. Local 32BJ mounted one of the biggest private-sector unionization drives in years and spearheaded a living-wage campaign for the airport workers. That dual strategy doubled pay for many airport workers and enabled them to win a union. Nor has the union confined its campaign to New York, waging instead an enormous organizing drive that has unionized more than 15,000 airport workers up and down the East Coast, with plans to expand to more cities and organize at least 10,000 more. In its scope, the campaign resembles those that unions often succeeded at decades ago, but rarely even attempt nowadays.

The campaign has focused on unionizing many of the lowest-paid airport workers: aircraft cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants, baggage porters, skycaps, security guards. Many of these workers are immigrants and workers of color. Beyond the unionization drive, Local 32BJ—in another impressive feat—has won a living wage, ranging from $12 to $19 an hour for airport workers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale.

“This is what we do. We organize and we bargain by industry,” says Kyle Bragg, president of Local 32BJ, which also represents thousands of cleaners, doormen, and security guards in apartment buildings and office towers along the Eastern Seaboard. “That’s what gives workers power. We use a strategy of worker mobilization and politics to win.”

Since Local 32BJ’s East Coast airport campaign began in New York in 2010, it has rolled up one impressive victory after another, unionizing 1,500 airport workers in Philadelphia; 900 in Fort Lauderdale; 2,000 in Boston; 2,000 at Dulles and Reagan National Airports; and a total of 10,000 at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. It is currently gearing up unionization drives in Miami and Orlando and at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. (Another union, UNITE HERE, which represents hotel and restaurant workers, has unionized thousands of airline catering workers and has often teamed up with 32BJ to demand a higher living wage for airport workers.)

As overall union membership has declined in recent decades, it’s been rare for a union to attempt, much less succeed at, a campaign that unionizes over 10,000 workers. “It’s a big number for these times,” says Ruth Milkman, a labor expert at the City University of New York. She says 32BJ has pursued a shrewd strategy, focusing on “a much more regulated workplace—it’s a way that unions can get a little more leverage over employers.” Milkman lauds Local 32BJ for devoting an unusually large share of its resources to organizing: 20 percent of its annual budget.

Organizing was a hallmark of Hector Figueroa, who headed Local 32BJ from 2012 to July 2019, when he died of a heart attack. During those seven years—a time when union membership nationwide stagnated—32BJ’s membership soared from 125,000 to 175,000, thanks to its many organizing drives. It spent $16.7 million on organizing in 2018 and has 120 full-time organizers, including 50 who focus on airport workers. Kyle Bragg has very much carried on his late friend’s devotion to organizing.

In an op-ed that The New York Times published posthumously, Figueroa wrote, “For too long, too many unions have avoided the tough work that needs to be done to organize nonunion workers.”

“It’s not too late to rebuild our movement,” he added. “We cannot let this unique moment in history pass us by. Organizing workers, all kinds of workers, needs to be our No. 1 priority.”

Local 32BJ’s leaders saw that airports were ripe for organizing because workers were so dissatisfied. Their stories of mistreatment are legion. Pedro Gamboa, a baggage handler at JFK, recounts how his pay had remained stuck at $8 an hour for four years. Saaed Bacchus, a security guard at JFK, says that his employer suddenly cut his pay by $1 an hour and that he sometimes had to work two jobs, totaling 90 hours a week, to make ends meet. Teresa Peralta, a cleaner, says, “Many of my co-workers cried because of how their managers would talk to them. There was no respect.”

“The airports are the biggest sweatshops in all these cities,” says Rob Hill, 32BJ’s organizing director. “They’re the biggest plantations.”

To the local’s leaders, the three New York airports were huge targets—and potential prizes. “It’s the closest thing to River Rouge in today’s economy,” said Larry Engelstein, 32BJ’s longtime general counsel, referring to the enormous Ford Motor auto-assembly complex in Dearborn, Michigan, which once employed 100,000 workers. “These were the largest concentrations of workers we’ve dealt with.”

The thousands of airport employees unionized by 32BJ work for a series of contractors that have been hired by American, Delta, and other airlines. Ten and twenty years ago, this group of workers used to work directly for the airlines, but the airlines contracted out most of this work and many workers’ hourly pay levels sank from $18 or $19 to around $10.

“These employers often see their job as holding workers down,” Bragg says. “It’s our job to lift workers up.”

NOWADAYS JUST 10 percent of American workers are in unions, down from a peak of 35 percent in the 1950s. Unions are fighting mightily to reverse that slide and figure out how to increase their bargaining power to lift millions of workers. At the moment, many labor leaders are urging Congress to give workers more bargaining leverage by passing a law that would expand sectoral—that is, industry-wide—bargaining. (The Republican-controlled Senate will certainly not approve such legislation.) Many of the Democratic presidential candidates embraced this idea, which would allow all the workers in an industry, whether fast-food workers or autoworkers, to band together to bargain for higher pay. That strategy, consolidating the strength of all of an industry’s workers, would give unions and workers far more bargaining power than they have today, when often just 5 percent of the workers in an industry are unionized, which affords them very limited bargaining leverage. Moreover, with many companies bargaining union contracts individually (as is the norm in the U.S.), corporate executives fear that if they give workers substantial raises or generous benefits, that will make their companies less competitive vis-à-vis non-union employers.

Bragg explains that his union local has been doing sectoral bargaining for years. Every few years, it negotiates master contracts that raise pay across the board for tens of thousands of doormen, janitors, and porters employed by dozens of companies at hundreds of office towers and apartment buildings in New York City. And in pressuring airport authorities in New York, Boston, and Washington into adopting a living wage several dollars above what many airport workers were earning, Local 32BJ has in effect expanded sectoral bargaining into a different industry, to the benefit of tens of thousands of airport workers.

In September 2018, Local 32BJ persuaded the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to approve a $19 minimum wage for some 40,000 airport workers at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. That’s the highest targeted minimum wage in the country. (It will reach $19 in 2023 in several steps.) That minimum covers cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants, newsstand workers, janitors, airport restaurant employees, and many others.

Local 32BJ has pursued this ambitious dual strategy—unionization and a living wage—first in New York and then in other cities. “We try to replicate the strategy, to move it to other airports,” Bragg says.

In an example of such replication, Local 32BJ persuaded the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in December 2019 to adopt a $15 minimum wage for more than 8,000 workers at Dulles and Reagan airports (it will reach $15 in 2023 in incremental steps). The national SEIU has employed some of the same strategies in airports across the U.S., getting authorities in Denver to adopt a $15 minimum for airport workers and in Houston, $12.

Some union officials fear that delivering a $15 or $19 wage to non-union workers might discourage them from unionizing, but Bragg sees things differently. “I don’t think they’re going to say, we have $15, we don’t need a union anymore,” he says. “They see that everything they’ve gained is through organizing. They see the union is the tip of the sword.”

Local 32BJ threw its weight behind the Fight for $15 from the very beginning, and did more than any other union to persuade New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, to embrace a $15 minimum wage. Cuomo signed a $15 minimum-wage law in April 2016; that measure not only helped fast-food workers, but paved the way for airport wages at JFK and LaGuardia to climb to $15 in 2019. (Across the Hudson, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a $15 minimum-wage law in February 2019.)

Local 32BJ and many airport workers decided that $15 wasn’t enough. They came up with a strategy to demand more, tying it to Governor Cuomo’s plans to invest billions in upgrading LaGuardia and JFK. “We told the governor, ‘You can’t have a world-class airport unless you’re investing in the people at the same time,’” says Engelstein, the general counsel. “You have the disparity of a poverty-wage workforce and raising billions of dollars to redo the airport. This was undermining efforts to have top-quality service because of the high level of turnover, the lack of training, and a lack of commitment to the workforce.”

Local 32BJ’s arguments—and protests—went far to persuade the Port Authority to adopt a $19 living wage. Thanks to the union and the living wage it won, Andrea Bundy now earns $15.60 an hour, more than twice what she earned when she landed her cabin-cleaning job in 2012.

“It’s a great, vast improvement in our wages,” says Bundy. As a result of the higher pay, she has cut back her workweek to 48 hours, from 70 hours-plus, enabling her to spend far more time with her daughter. “We could go to the movies together. We could go to the mall together,” Bundy says. “She would talk my ear off.”

The wage increase was a boon in another way—for the first time since arriving in 2011, Bundy had enough money to return to Jamaica to visit friends.

Bundy blushed as she admitted that she had at first deliberately avoided 32BJ’s organizers when she saw them on the AirTrain platform. “I hid from them,” she says. The reason: When she was first hired as a cabin cleaner, she had to sign a form joining a union that she soon learned was a sham outfit. Each month she had to pay it $30 in dues. “Nobody from that union was representing us,” she said. “We couldn’t call anybody for help on anything. When 32BJ first came along, we didn’t want any more union. The union we had was a fake union.” (Some workers told her that the union was run by a cousin of one of her company’s bosses.)

Bundy acknowledges that one reason she had the gumption to talk back to her supervisor about the van being so cold was she knew there was a union in the background that would most likely fight for workers like her who spoke out to improve conditions. After that confrontation with her supervisor, Bundy invited a 32BJ organizer to come to her apartment, and she was impressed when he laid out 32BJ’s vision for improving wages and conditions. Not long before, the union had staged a rally by hundreds of workers at LaGuardia Airport, demanding that they be given Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday off as a holiday. (The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ultimately required airport contractors to do that, giving those workers their first paid holiday.)

Bundy became one of the most outspoken rank-and-file organizers in JFK Terminal 7, an American Airlines terminal. “I said, this is our time to stand up!” says Bundy, who is normally soft-spoken, but can turn fierce and forceful when fired up. Her employer fought back against unionization. Bundy says that “management told the workers, ‘It won’t matter if you have a union. We are still in charge. We will still make the decisions. All the union wants is to make money from you.’”

Her company unionized in 2015 when the overwhelming majority of its workers at JFK signed cards to join Local 32BJ (which had helped oust the sham union). Thanks to 32BJ, Bundy says, “the managers are treating us much better. Before, we didn’t have any form of communications at all. Before, they’d ignore us if we said this mop is no good. Now they have to stand and listen to what we’re saying. Now we can say, ‘We need new mops. We need better vehicles.’ Now we have a voice. That has improved 100 percent.”

Her daughter, who graduated from high school last June, did so well in school and on the track team that she was offered a college scholarship. Defying her mother’s wishes, she chose to join the Navy, convinced it would be too much of a financial struggle for her mother to send her to college, even with the help of a scholarship. “She wanted to cut down expenses on my part,” Bundy said. “She saw that I was struggling for so long.”

Bundy couldn’t hide her sadness that she hadn’t seen her daughter in five months.

WHEN TIMOTHY GLENN began working as a wheelchair attendant at Philadelphia International Airport in 2013, his base salary was just $5.75 an hour. Tips were supposed to lift his pay to at least $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage, but there was a catch—passenger service attendants like him were prohibited from asking for tips.

Glenn remembers what happened when two of his co-workers were accused of soliciting tips. “One of the managers said, ‘Take their badge,’” he says. “They’d fire you off hearsay.”

Glenn, a burly 57-year-old, also complained about the pay. “A lot of people couldn’t afford a car, they had to take public transportation,” he says. “I couldn’t even afford to take a vacation.”

The good news is Glenn’s base pay has soared in recent years, jumping to $13.27 an hour.

Local 32BJ first took its airport campaign to Philadelphia in 2013. To lift wages and show airport workers what a union could accomplish, Local 32BJ helped orchestrate a May 2014 referendum that set a $12 living wage for Philadelphia airport workers as well as workers employed by city contractors. Glenn’s pay has since climbed more than a dollar above that because of his union contract. When 32BJ began organizing at his airport, “I was afraid at first,” Glenn admits. The lead skycap had warned him against speaking to union organizers. But 32BJ’s “we will give you a voice” message inspired him.

Local 32BJ set out to unionize two of Philadelphia’s biggest airport contractors, PrimeFlight Aviation Services and Prospect Air, but they dug in and resisted unionization. Local 32BJ responded by ratcheting up pressure on American Airlines, the airport’s dominant carrier, in order to push it to get its contractors to stop battling the union. This battle heated up shortly before the Democratic National Convention was scheduled to take place in Philadelphia in July 2016. Local 32BJ organized a protest with 1,000 workers and allies just days before the convention. The union further alarmed Democratic leaders by threatening a strike that would shut down much of the airport, delay the arrival of convention-goers, and seriously disrupt the big event. With Philadelphia’s mayor and many members of the clergy backing the union, American Airlines came to the table and agreed to press its contractors to stop fighting unionization. Local 32BJ called off the strike.

Despite some continued resistance from the contractors, the Philadelphia airport workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize in April 2017. Negotiations dragged on for months, but the union finally got the airport contractors to agree to a first contract, in June 2018, although only after threatening another walkout.

At airport after airport, Local 32BJ has deployed a finely honed strategy. First, its organizers talk with and mobilize airport workers. Next come repeated short strikes to disrupt airport contractors and pressure airlines to get their contractors to stop battling against unionization. At the same time, 32BJ lines up friendly politicians to loudly back unionization and higher airport wages. Throughout all this, Local 32BJ pushes to persuade airport authorities to approve a higher living wage for airport workers.

In short, 32BJ’s strategy has been pressure and more pressure, from within and without. In city after city, from Boston to Miami, it has organized raucous protests outside airline terminals and in front of city halls. It has mobilized airport workers to throng port authority meetings and chant for higher pay. It has gotten hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers to hold protest marches along busy highways, traffic be damned.

As part of this campaign, 32BJ has adopted a highly unusual strategy by union standards. Its leaders concluded that the smartest way to increase airport workers’ wages would not be through a union contract, but through winning across-the-board raises for all of an airport’s lower-wage workers—generally through a living-wage referendum or getting airport authorities to order higher minimum pay. Local 32BJ’s leaders feared that if they negotiated raises of, say, $2 an hour for an airport contractor’s workers, that contractor would lose out in competitive bidding to a non-union contractor that paid far less.

Local 32BJ followed that strategy at the three New York airports. It first got Bundy’s company and ten other airline contractors at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark to sign a contract for 8,000 workers in December 2016. In those negotiations, the union didn’t push for significantly higher wages or on another big-ticket item: health coverage. The union instead won valuable seniority protections, scheduling protocols, and just-cause protections against arbitrary firings. The union is now urging New York’s and New Jersey’s governors and legislatures to enact legislation that would require airport contractors to provide health coverage to their workers.

To Timothy Glenn, unionization has been a godsend. It has enabled him to buy a car—a 2004 Buick Century with 72,000 miles. Glenn says the raises he’s received have “enabled me to take a real vacation for the first time in years. Me and my lady friend took a one-week vacation to West Palm Beach. We took a flight down there. We’re able to try to live the American dream. I’m even able to save a little bit.”

Glenn and other wheelchair attendants used to complain that workers were often fired for tiny infractions—like not immediately answering the radio or taking a few too many minutes to get from one place to another—all without being able to challenge their dismissal.

That has all changed as a result of the union. “Now they can’t fire you at will,” Glenn says. “Now they have progressive discipline. First there has to be a verbal warning and then some type of written documentation and then if the problem continues, you have to be written up and there be some suspension. Now we can’t just be fired based on one customer’s complaint. There has to be an investigation.”

Glenn turns emotional in explaining that management now has to listen to workers like him. “Now we have a voice that we never had,” he says.

AFTER RACKING UP successes at airports in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston, 32BJ is now focusing on the Sunshine State, mounting a major unionization drive in Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Orlando.

It staged four short strikes at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and held protests at the Broward County Commission. With those tactics, it persuaded the county commission to adopt a $15.12 living wage for more than 2,000 workers at Fort Lauderdale Airport. Similarly, Local 32BJ persuaded Miami authorities to adopt a $15.60 living wage for workers at Miami International Airport.

Delighted by such victories, many South Florida airport workers have been eager to join 32BJ. But the union has faced fierce resistance from the biggest airline contractor at the Miami airport, Eulen America, which employs more than 1,500 workers there. (Eulen is based in Spain, where its workforce is unionized.) In Miami, American Airlines uses Eulen to clean airplane cabins between flights, while Delta has hired Eulen to clean cabins and load and unload bags. Eulen also provides wheelchair attendants to numerous airlines.

Local 32BJ is responding to Eulen’s resistance with some fierce tactics of its own. It has organized simultaneous short strikes against Eulen at airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, New York, and Washington, D.C. The union has badly embarrassed Eulen by helping provide damning information to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and to TV news teams. One news program showed several Eulen workers who were receiving public assistance and were homeless. In another media report, Eulen workers told of roaches in the supply truck, badly broken equipment, and retaliation if they complained.

Last September, Yolanda Rodriguez, a cabin cleaner for Eulen in Orlando, was knocked unconscious when a fast-moving Eulen truck she was traveling in—it lacked seatbelts—stopped suddenly. She banged her head and was badly injured. As a result, she can’t work; she is having problems walking and is suffering from dizziness, strong headaches, and back pain. “Eulen put our life in danger by giving us trucks without seatbelts.” Rodriguez said. “Why was this allowed?”

In November, OSHA levied an $80,000 fine against Eulen, having found that the company exposed workers to excessive heat and dangerous noise levels, as well as blood-borne pathogens through potentially infectious hypodermic needles, all without properly training its workers on how to handle these dangerous materials. (In an informal settlement, Eulen negotiated that penalty down to $47,000.) In its response, Eulen said it had cooperated fully in the OSHA investigation and taken immediate steps to address any problems OSHA raised.

Though the company also insists it treats its workers fairly, the National Labor Relations Board has twice charged Eulen with illegally firing workers who wanted to unionize. Local 32BJ has rallied lawmakers to back the Eulen workers and their unionization efforts, among them Congresswoman Donna Shalala, who represents South Florida. “Eulen America remains an outlier by continually putting workers’ health, safety and lives at risk,” she said. “Eulen’s long and troubled history makes the company unfit to do business at our nation’s airports.”

For the past decade, Rashad Grant has worked as a baggage handler and wheelchair attendant at the Fort Lauderdale airport, initially making $4.06 an hour before tips. His pay was so low that once when he went to deposit a $280 check for two full-time weeks of work (80 hours), the bank teller told him that there must be something wrong—suggesting that his company must have docked him money for losing a bag. “I was kind of embarrassed about having to deposit such a small paycheck,” Grant says.

Grant, 33, now makes $15.12 an hour thanks to the living-wage campaign that Local 32BJ spearheaded. “It helped tremendously,” Grant says. “I don’t have to fall behind in my debt anymore. I couldn’t keep up with monthly bills. I often had to use credit.”

Grant complains that Eulen has cut his workweek from 40 hours to 30, offsetting much of the hourly wage gain. He is upset that even though his current job is wheelchair attendant, his supervisor often wants him to monitor safety checkpoints and the baggage claim belt. “It’s like we have no voice to quiet these things down,” Grant says. “If we had a union in place, it wouldn’t be so easy for them to disrespect the workers and take advantage of them.”

Grant worries that Eulen and other airline contractors will maneuver to persuade county officials to reduce the $15.12 living wage. “Without the union,” he said, “these companies can come in and try to take these wages from us. Things like that wouldn’t happen if we have a union. A union would be a form of insurance to help protect what we’ve gained.”

Steven Greenhouse was a New York Times reporter for 31 years, including 19 as its labor and workplace reporter. He is the author of the new book ‘Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.’

Co-published with The American Prospect.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Steven Greenhouse was a New York Times reporter for 31 years, including 19 as its labor and workplace reporter. He is the author of the new book ‘Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.’

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