Union Rally Seeks Higher Pay for Airport Workers


More than 500 union members launched a campaign Friday to persuade United Airlines to pay its security workers and other employees at Los Angeles International Airport a so-called living wage, increasing pressure on Mayor Richard Riordan to confront an issue that has vexed him and his administration.

"This is only the beginning," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the national AFL-CIO. "We are here."

Chavez-Thompson led hundreds of national and local AFL-CIO members and airport workers Friday as they marched from the Wyndham Hotel to the nearby airport, where they picketed in front of the United terminal.

Armed with picket signs, the demonstrators braved an evening downpour and headed down Century Boulevard directly toward United's terminal chanting, "Si, se puede!" meaning "Yes we can!"

Airport employees joining in the rally said they work long hours in sometimes unsafe conditions, and deserve more than they are being paid.

"By the time you pay rent and utilities, you're broke," said Melvin Ware, a customs carousel handler who takes home about $317 every two weeks. "There's no life after work."

Raquel Littlejohn, who screens passenger luggage, said she and other airport employees help ensure the safety of travelers, but without a living wage they put their own health at risk because they lack medical coverage.

Littlejohn said her job, much of it spent at a computer terminal, strains her eyes, but with a take-home salary of less than $400 every two weeks she can't afford to get them checked.

"We do a lot of work for the airport," said Littlejohn, who works in the United terminal. "We deserve respect."

The national AFL-CIO brings 13 million members and powerful political strength to what until now has been a local battle. In addition, the national labor presence further complicates the issue for the Riordan administration, which has tried to navigate a middle course on the question of living wages but has succeeded mostly in disappointing both sides.

Over Riordan's objections, the City Council last year passed an ordinance requiring large companies that contract with the city to pay their workers a living wage, meaning $7.25 an hour with benefits or $8.50 an hour without them. Council members called that basic fairness; Riordan said it was bad for business and inadequate to provide a decent living.

The council overrode the mayor's veto, and the ordinance is the law in Los Angeles.

Applying it has proved another matter, and last year's political debate has turned into a months-long ordeal over legal interpretation and appropriate use of power by the mayor's office.

Specifically, the new issue is whether airlines, which hold leases from the city, are obliged to pay their Los Angeles-based ground crews--janitors, groundskeepers, security officers and the like--a living wage if they are to be allowed to continue holding those leases. In other words, are the leases "contracts" within the meaning of the ordinance and are the employees doing work that otherwise would be done by city workers?

The airlines say no, and Riordan has backed their legal interpretation, while trying to persuade the carriers to raise salaries as a matter of morality.

Backers of the living wage have noted Riordan's behind-the-scenes lobbying, but they say the mayor's efforts have failed. Moreover, they are skeptical that Riordan's efforts will ever amount to anything, given the airlines' determination to resist a wage increase, even for security officers who are responsible for the safety of passengers, crews and airplanes departing from the airport and yet make $5.75 an hour.

"We're very gratified that the mayor appears to have followed through on his promise to talk to the airlines," said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, director of the Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition. "But that clearly hasn't made the day for us."

Although acknowledging that Riordan's efforts have not yet budged the airlines, the mayor's press secretary, Noelia Rodriguez, said Riordan will continue to press for action.

"The mayor's message is centered on the idea that it is in the best interests of the airlines, not just from a business perspective but also from a moral perspective, to pay a living wage," Rodriguez said, adding that Riordan has not changed his view that the ordinance is a bad idea.

A United spokesman declined to comment in detail.

United is not alone in resisting the living wage ordinance's application to airport workers in Los Angeles. But the airline is seeking a new lease from the airport, and advocates of the living wage say they will fight city approval of that agreement unless United relents.

Faced with the airlines' refusal to raise salaries--and the mayor's unwillingness to require the raises--leaders of the Living Wage Coalition intend to ask the City Council to revisit the issue in the coming weeks or months.

According to Janis-Aparicio, council members will be asked to pass legislation that would require airlines leasing airport space to pay their local ground crews a living wage. That would end the ambiguity in the law, but almost certainly would trigger a legal fight with the airlines.

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, the measure's chief advocate in the City Council, said she and other proponents hope to avoid a legal battle, but they are disappointed by the airlines' position.

Like other advocates of the ordinance, Goldberg said she was particularly concerned about the implications of the low pay for airport security workers. The men and women who operate airport metal detectors and X-ray machines are among those making the state minimum wage, $5.75 an hour. They get no benefits, no paid sick days and no vacation, and yet they are responsible for the safety of millions of passengers and thousands of airplanes that annually depart from the nation's second-busiest airport.

That has fueled frustration at the airport and anxiety among some city leaders, who worry that overtaxed, underappreciated workers may not form the best bulwark against terrorism at the airport.

"As a city, we're concerned in particular about the issue of security at the airport," Goldberg said. "I don't think it's good that the person who is doing such an important job has to be worrying about trying to get to the next one because the security job doesn't pay a living wage."

Goldberg added that she hoped Riordan could persuade the airlines to change course, but she too was skeptical: "I would be perfectly happy to see this example of mayoral pressure. . . . If he can do this, I will have a press conference and congratulate him."

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