By Jonathan Rosenblum, Working Washington Campaign Director and a member of PSARA
If you’ve flown out of Sea-Tac Airport on Alaska Airlines, you might have met Saba Belachew.
Saba is one of hundreds of wheelchair attendants who help passengers needing assistance get safely and efficiently from the curb to their flight. She does her job with professionalism and compassion.
It’s because of people like Saba that Alaska is a well-regarded, popular airline; so successful, in fact, that it made $319 million in net profits in 2012 – the third straight year of record profits for the SeaTac-based company.
Now you might think that Saba, as part of Alaska’s team, would reap the rewards of Alaska’s success. Not so: She makes $9.19 an hour, the state’s minimum wage, by an Alaska Airlines contractor.
“It’s appalling that my co-workers and I are paid minimum wage while Alaska Airlines makes record profits,” notes Saba. “We’re part of Alaska’s success. We provide quality customer services, every day of the year. Who can raise a family on $9.19 an hour?”
Saba is just one of several thousand Sea-Tac Airport workers stuck in poverty- wage private-sector jobs at our public airport. Her story also belongs to her colleagues who clean and fuel the planes, load and unload baggage and cargo, clean and prepare rental cars, and do a myriad of other jobs to make air passenger travel safe, comfortable and reliable. Many of these jobs used to be good, union jobs. But with airline deregulation in 1978 and decades of union-busting by employers, thousands of these jobs have been reduced to poverty-wage, non- benefited positions.
Thankfully, Saba and her co-workers are doing something about it. Earlier this year, low-wage airport workers began forming unions and launched the fight for respect and good jobs. And they’re doing this with strong support from faith and community allies, high school students, senior citizens and many others.
On March 26, more than 80 airport workers and faith and community allies went to 5 major contractors at Sea-Tac to announce that they had formed unions covering 1,300 workers. They called on the employers to recognize their unions and begin negotiations.
Not surprisingly, the employers refused, but that hasn’t stopped things. In mid-April, dozens of faith leaders and community allies descended on the Alaska Airlines ticket counter to lodge customer complaints. “It really surprises and upsets me that Alaska would con- tract with companies that treat workers so poorly,” community supporter Nicki Olivier told an Alaska Airlines manager as TV cameras filmed the protest.
On May 21, workers and their community supporters stunned Alaska executives by taking over the company’s 2013 annual shareholders meeting. A dozen faith leaders preempted the start of the normally prosaic affair with a prayer for justice for Alaska’s workers. During the business meeting, workers rose to speak out against low wages and mistreatment. Community activists inside the meeting led chants and boisterous singing. And finally, faith and community leaders openly challenged the company CEO to respect people, not just profits. By the end of the meeting, the rattled company executives had committed to talk directly to the workers and their representatives.
Meanwhile, workers and their allies have recently announced that they have collected enough signatures from voters in the City of SeaTac to qualify their living wage initiative for the November ballot. The initiative calls for a living wage of at least $15/hour, paid sick leave, and worker protections for workers in the airport and also for those who work in the hotels, rental car companies and parking lots around the airport.
It will be an exciting 2013 as Saba and her co-workers fight for justice at work and at the ballot box. We welcome every- one’s participation.
For more information: www.itsourairport.com or Brianna Thomas @ 253-370-8972.