It wasn’t airport workers that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis to support when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, but rather sanitation workers, on strike for higher pay and better, safer working conditions.
But union cabin cleaners, security guards and other low-wage workers at Newark Liberty International Airport have made a tradition of King holiday rallies to assert their rights to decent wages and health care. And they did again on Monday, though virtually this time, in support of a bill requiring employers to pay anyone earning up to $19 an additional $4.54 hourly premium to help cover health care costs.
“Dr. King understood, just as we understand today, that there can be no economic justice without racial justice, and there can be no racial justice, in our country and around the world, without economic justice,” said Kevin Brown, New Jersey district director for Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which represents 2,300 of the 4,000 workers at Newark Liberty who would receive the extra pay under the so-called “Healthy Terminals Act.”
The proposed legislation, S989 in the state Senate and A2487 in the Assembly, is intended to help uninsured workers pay for care, and even to help workers with what are often bare-bones health care plans over the cost of copayments, deductibles, or employee contributions to premiums.
The bill would apply to airport workers making up to $19 an hour, $2.80 an hour higher than the workers’ current hourly minimum wage of $16.20. The dollar amount of the health care pay is derived from a federal Department of Labor formula estimating the region’s healthcare costs. The prime sponsor of the bill is the state Senate majority Leader, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, a veteran lawmaker who last week said she would retire after her current term ends, but pledged during Monday’s Zoom rally that she would push for the bill’s approval.
“This is so fitting on MLK Day, to be having this rally,” Weinberg said. Local 32BJ said more than 100 participants took part in the rally. “Thank you for all you do. Thank you for all of the support I’ve gotten from all of you.”
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York signed similar legislation that applies to John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports, and proponents expressed confidence that the Weinberg bill would be signed by Cuomo’s New Jersey counterpart and fellow Democrat, Gov. Phil Murphy. In 2018, Murphy asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey board — half of whose members are appointed by New Jersey’s governor — to adopt an airport minimum wage of $19 an hour by 2023. They did.
Brown downplayed what he said would be the $85 million annual cost of the health care pay requirement to the airline industry, in which the airport workers are typically employed by local firms that airlines hire to clean terminal bathrooms, waiting areas and aircraft cabins, to move baggage and do other support work. He said the figure would amount to .13%, or a little over one-tenth of 1%, of the $65 billion in coronavirus-related bailout funds that that airline industry has received from the federal government during the pandemic.
Critics of the measure say it will actually hurt the largely Black and Latinx airport workforce during the pandemic, when airline travel has plummeted.
“Contrary to the intended effect of helping workers during a time of crisis, imposing higher labor costs on an already overburdened industry will have disastrous consequences,” John E. Harmon, Sr. is the founder, president & CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a September Op-Ed piece on NJ.com. “This is a time when we can ill-afford to lose jobs, especially in the minority community – a group that suffered a record number of job losses during the pandemic. In fact, 61% of Hispanics and 44% of African-Americans said they or someone in their household was laid off or had their wages cut.”
Airlines for America, the main industry group, and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the bi-state agency that runs Newark, LaGuardia and JFK, did not immediately return requests for comment on the health care pay legislation.
Speakers during the virtual rally included Andre Cooper of East Orange, a 54-year-old father of two who works as a cabin cleaner at Newark Liberty, a job that entails risks to his own health and safety in order to protect those of airline passengers and crew, sterilizing planes and looking for bombs or other threats.
“I clean planes from all over the world during the pandemic,” Cooper said. “I worked through the holidays when the airport got a little crowded, and now (COVID-19) cases are at an all-time high. We risk everything for travelers and airlines staff to protect them. And we need to the same amount of protection. We need healthcare. I don’t have any health care right now, and I know I’m not alone.”
The Zoom rally on the federal holiday marking the birth of King on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, included remarks by one of New Jersey’s own Baptist ministers. The Rev. David Ford of the St. Matthew Baptist Church in Roselle blended his own words of support for the airport workers with a partial quote from King’s 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
“I am standing with them because,” Ford told he online rally, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
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Steve Strunsky may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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