Workers Protest Job Conditions at Airport

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Starting what could be another summer of labor discontent at LAX, workers who screen luggage for weapons marched outside Terminal 1 on Wednesday to protest what they say are poor working conditions, lack of benefits and intimidation by managers.

The march was the latest skirmish in a three-year battle by two of the region's fastest-growing unions, the Service Employees International Union and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, to organize thousands of low-wage workers at Los Angeles International Airport.

The effort, known as the "Respect at LAX" campaign, has been marked by civil disobedience among workers at the airport, including walkouts and traffic-stopping marches, which have often started in the spring and summer.

About 50 union and nonunion workers participated in Wednesday's action, called to put pressure on Huntleigh USA Corp., a firm hired by Southwest Airlines to provide security and other services at LAX.

About 165 Huntleigh workers, including screeners, wheelchair and baggage claim attendants and skycaps, want to be recognized as part of SEIU Local 1877--the powerful union that has won janitors rights across Los Angeles.

Shaking soda cans full of raw pinto beans, workers chanted "No justice, no peace," and carried signs reading "Good jobs for a better L.A." Demonstrators said they often spend hours on their feet with no breaks scanning computer screens for weapons in carry-on luggage.

"I've gone eight hours without a break," said Salvador Loreno, a screener at LAX for two years. "I get dizzy because I'm hungry and my eyes hurt from staring at the screen."

Loreno and his co-workers, who are typically paid about $19,000 a year, don't receive medical benefits, paid vacation or sick days. Huntleigh also discourages employees from speaking up at work to point out security problems, union organizers said.

The combination of low wages and high stress leads to an astounding turnover rate of about 88% annually among screeners at LAX, according to a recent study by the General Accounting Office.

Demonstrators also spoke of intimidation by Huntleigh managers. Alba Rivera, who works 72 hours a week at two jobs to support herself and two teenagers, said she was suspended from her job as a screener this week without pay after her supervisor saw her signing a union petition.

"They wanted to make a photocopy of the letter, to know who else signed it," Rivera said. "Then they sent me home."

So far, the SEIU's efforts, which include a petition signed by 130 workers and sent to Huntleigh this spring, have met with resistance from the company.

In a letter to union organizers, Huntleigh attorney Michael J. Bobroff said the company will not communicate with the union until it is certified by federal authorities as an employee representative.

In response to correspondence from the union, Bobroff wrote in the letter, "We believe Huntleigh's customers and others view your correspondence as the equivalent of junk mail."

The SEIU considers it essential to unionize Huntleigh workers to consolidate the bargaining power it has already achieved at the airport with Argenbright Security Inc., which provides security services for United Airlines, and Globe Security, another contractor for airlines at LAX.

"Huntleigh is the linchpin," said Eddie Iny, a research associate in the AFL-CIO's department of corporate affairs. The AFL-CIO partially bankrolled the "Respect at LAX" campaign. "We can't raise the floor uniformly for all workers here now because it would put the other companies at a competitive disadvantage."

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