The organizing strategy that won 8,000 airport workers their first union contract on Thursday—ending months of negotiations and staving off threats of holiday season airport strikes—intentionally separated the push for union protections like fair scheduling and job safety from the fight for higher wages. As a result, while cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants and security guards in New York and New Jersey will soon have the same workplace protections, only New York workers are on the path to a state-mandated $15 minimum wage. The contract also excludes benefits, like health insurance.
On December 31st, the minimum wage in New York will increase from $9 to $11 per hour, in accordance with new minimum wage guidelines signed in April. In New Jersey, the planned raise is more modest—$8.44 up from $8.38 (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed $15 minimum wage legislation over the summer). The Port Authority instated a minimum wage of $10.10 back in 2014, so JFK and La Guardia workers will get a raise. Newark workers, between 1,500 and 2,000 of them, will not.
The logic, according to service workers union SEIU 32BJ, is that negotiating higher wages with subcontractors—the companies that provide services like cabin cleaning and baggage handling—would likely lead to more expensive contracts between those subcontractors and the airports themselves.
"Were individual, unionized subcontractors to agree to economic increases, they could lose a necessary competitive advantage and simply be replaced by the airlines, leaving workers back where they started," the union predicted in a release this week.
Separately, a 32BJ spokeswoman said, airport workers will continue to participate in the national Fight for $15—pushing elected officials and the Port Authority itself for industry-wide wage increases.
The Port Authority, meanwhile, has been critical of the union and the wage fight. At a September press conference, Port Authority Chairman John Degnan said explicitly that he was opposed to instating a $15 minimum wage.
"These are folks who engender a lot of sympathy and empathy in my mind," he said, of the workers. "However, they are represented by a union. That union should be collectively bargaining with their employer to set wages and benefits."
"[Wages] should not be imposed on them by a public agency as a result of political pressure," he added. "Which is exactly the modality used by this particular union—intimidation, and political pressure. I'm not going to bend to that, and I don't think my colleagues will either."
— 32BJ SEIU (@32BJSEIU) December 15, 2016
Under the new contract, cabin cleaners will have better access to cleaning materials, like sturdy gloves. Workers have alleged that without adequate gloves, their hands have been exposed to everything from harsh cleaning chemicals to bodily fluids like blood and vomit. "The company gives me 5 rags to clean 14 or more planes and each plane has 3-4 bathrooms," one Ultimate employee testified last summer. "I have to use the same rag to clean the floor, wall, toilet, and sink."
Workers will also receive schedules a week in advance, and full time employees will be guaranteed at least 32 hours of work per week.
Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, praised the "historic" contract. "It has been a long time since such a large group of workers have been able to successfully organize for union membership," he said.
But workers acknowledged the impending disparity between New York and New Jersey. "I don't think it's fair that a New York worker can get $15 doing the exact same job that I do and I don't get $15," Broderick Cooper, who works at Newark, told the NY Times.
Workers are expected to ratify the new contract over the next week, according to 32BJ. Reached for comment, the Port Authority referred us to Chairman Degnan's comments, above.