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Council backs call for airport wage increase

Anna Lamb
Council backs call for airport wage increase
SEIU 32BJ Executive Vice President Roxana Rivera speaks during a press conference at City Hall. PHOTO: ANNA LAMB

Last Wednesday, outside the Iannella Chamber in City Hall, airline workers, led by 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizers, joined elected officials to demand that Massport raise the basic wage at Logan Airport to meet the needs of workers who have continued to be on the front lines since the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago.

“Throughout this pandemic, these cabin cleaners, security officers, wheelchair attendants, janitors and others have been on the front lines focusing on keeping the airport clean and safe, even as the rest of us were staying home. Now they are struggling to get back on their feet,” 32BJ SEIU Executive Vice President Roxana Rivera told the small crowd gathered ahead of the March 30 Boston City Council meeting.

Rivera’s words were bolstered by stories from airline workers who say they have faced financial hardship due to intermittent layoffs with the fluctuation of air travel. Even more have faced long-lasting health impacts from contracting the coronavirus. Some recounted family members dying of COVID, and the toll that has taken.

“I had COVID during the pandemic. I almost died,” said Michelle Ismes, an employee with airline contractor G2 Secure Staff. Ismes said her asthma caused her to be hospitalized for almost a week. 

She added, “My uncle lost his life during the pandemic and was the first family member that I lost. That was really hard for me mentally, and I think one of the common issues I’ve always had was our wages are so low that a lot of us don’t get to take care of family losses and mental health.”

To put pressure on Massport to raise wages, Councilor Lydia Edwards introduced a resolution at the City Council meeting that day urging them to adjust the required wage for contractors at Logan.

“The airport is in my district. These workers are my constituents and residents and people who I’ve supported for years — I have been organizing on all fronts of workers’ rights for many years, especially immigrant workers’ rights,” Edwards told the Banner. “So this is the coming together of all parts of my advocacy. This is a moment for us to stand with essential workers, those who kept our industry moving, and to really demand and call on Massport to stand with them again.”

This is the second time Edwards has made a push for Massport to increase airport wages. In January 2020, successful rallying by the union and its supporters in government won workers an increase to $15 an hour. However, since the start of the pandemic, the majority Black, brown and immigrant workforce at Logan has had to struggle with coronavirus protocols — at times facing shortages in proper protective equipment — while dealing also with the economic fallout and inflation happening now.

“As an immigrant who spent 10 years in refugee camps, I’ve faced plenty of hardship in my life, but none as great as the last two years,” said Ababuti Olok, a skycap worker and wheelchair attendant at Logan who lives in Chelsea with his wife and two sons. “I was grateful to go back to work after being laid off for many months, but I still fell over three months behind on rent and feared my family would end up homeless. Even now, I’m still behind on my bills. I need relief so my children can stay in our home.”

As for the nature of Edwards’ bill, the language supports all airline workers through Massport, instead of relying solely on unionized workers negotiating new contracts. A 32BJ SEIU spokeswoman previously told the Boston Herald, “Massport has the power and, we think, the responsibility to influence these contractors to raise the minimum raise for everyone who works at the airport.”

Almost 1,000 of the roughly 2,500 airline workers at Logan are not part of a union.

Edwards’ bill passed unanimously Wednesday afternoon.

boston city council, Logan airport workers, SEIU 32B