jfk airport
Members of Local BJ 32 protest outside JFK airport. (Lloyd Mitchell)

Hundreds of airport workers with 32BJ SEIU, one of the nation’s largest service workers unions, held a rally outside John F. Kennedy International Airport Terminal 5 on April 21 in preparation for a possible walkout unless they receive a fair contract.  

More than 10,000 New York and New Jersey airport workers at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty International airports are demanding the proper implementation of new healthcare legislation, the Healthy Terminals Act, that would provide staff with meaningful benefits and protections — much of which they say they did not have access to while working during the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, the majority of the employees are Black, Brown and immigrant workers, who already have been disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus.

“Yesterday, justice was served, and our country took a major step in the right direction,” said 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg on April 21, referring to the trial of Derek Chauvin. “However, we know that in order to achieve true racial justice, we must continue to fight for economic justice, healthcare justice, and dignity and respect Black and Brown workers deserve. It’s unconscionable to think that these contractors are trying to get in the way of Black and Brown front-line workers receiving healthcare.”

Tensions are high because airline employees are fed up with the lack of care they say their employers have for their health and safety. All their bargaining chips are on the table, and if an agreement is not met soon, they will strike, affecting operations at three airports.

The 32BJ airport workers say it’s time to put the billions of dollars the airlines received from the CARES Act toward healthcare justice and equity.

“I stand with the 32BJ airport workers as they fight for a fair contract. Our frontline workers — who are disproportionately Black and Brown — have sacrificed so much during this pandemic. They deserve robust health coverage and a full suite of good benefits. Let’s get this done,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Many of these workers have helped keep the cabins and terminals clean during the pandemic, while others put their lives at risk to handle baggage and hold their post as security officers, wheelchair attendants, and skycaps. They say that they cannot protect passengers without first protecting themselves.

In addition, many of these jobs are subcontracted and have been the first unit to begin bargaining since the Covid-19 onset.

Discussions began virtually on March 4 and workers have been pushing for racial and healthcare justice in their contract negotiations. Their current contract expired on April 1, and they were set to have another meeting on April 23 to continue bargaining measures.

As of now, the employees have learned of a proposal to remove MLK Day as a paid holiday, a blow that many of those at the rally say is disrespectful after the recent and turbulent year pushing for racial justice.

“I risked myself, my family to do my job throughout the pandemic,” said Cristina Mendez, a LaGuardia terminal cleaner, as she addressed a sea of more than 250 32BJ SEIU essential airport workers at a rally on April 21. “And these employers are penny-pinching over our safety and healthcare.”

amNewYork Metro reached out to Port Authority of NY and NJ for comment, and is awaiting a response.

This story first appeared on amny.com.

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