In the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, US airport workers engaging in an Unfair Labor Practice strike today at nine airports, are calling for more workforce investment and emergency preparedness for all airport workers.
“The Brussels attacks at the airport should be a wake-up call for everybody,” said security officer Sadaf Subijano, who has worked at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for 20 years. “We need critical training to protect ourselves, other workers and our passengers when emergencies happen.”
Last week U.S. airport workers postponed their strike and instead held vigils to honor the victims of the Brussels attacks. Yesterday they held a rally a Los Angeles International Airport and today are striking at Sea-Tac (Seattle), O’Hare, Logan (Boston), John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia, Reagan National, and Fort Lauderdale.
The attack on Brussels’ Zaventem airport and a 2013 shooting at LAX both show airport service workers—including baggage handlers, passenger service agents, wheel chair assistants, security officers and others—are the very first responders in emergencies. According to press reports, Brussels baggage handler Alphonse Lyoura pulled seven people to safety. Shortly after the LAX shooting, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti publicly acknowledged the heroic actions of LAX service workers, including one passenger service agent who made the first call to police and stayed at the site while others were fleeing. As detailed in a 2014 SEIU-United Service Workers West report, while law enforcement secured the terminal, airport workers provided vital assistance to assure the safety and well-being of travelers – guiding them to safer areas of the tarmac, helping disabled passengers requiring wheelchair assistance to evacuate and providing food to children during an all-day lock-down.
Investment in emergency response training should be accompanied by investment in our airport workforce. Low wages at airports lead to high turnover, which puts workers in danger and undermines safety and quality of service. Recent studies have shown that airport workers who provide critical services such as assisting disabled special needs passengers, perform security functions and maintain public health standards are too often poorly compensated, receive little training and have few incentives to stay in their jobs over the long-term.
Both the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and a 2011 LAX Blue Ribbon panel on airport security have advocated a “Whole Community” approach to disaster preparedness, an approach which advocates for engaging and empowering all parts of a community. Equipping the thousands of airport workers who are in direct contact with passengers every day to respond in cases of extreme weather, live-shooters, or terrorist attacks is smart policy. As critical stakeholders, airport workers are calling for the following specific measures:
Workforce Investment: Pro-active airport policies that establish minimum labor standards to promote stable operations at the airport and the retention of an experienced, well-trained workforce. It is unacceptable that, for example, at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, the nation’s busiest airport, turnover averaged over 80% in 2014 for a subset of 17 sub-contractors.
Training: Passenger service workers should be included as participants in airport emergency drills alongside airport personnel, police and other emergency responders. Service workers should be trained on how to respond to protect both themselves and passengers during active shooter incidents and specialized training should be provided both for workers who provide security services (guarding doors, monitoring security cameras and other security functions) as well as for wheelchair agents who are tasked with helping to evacuate elderly and disabled passengers
With training infrastructure already in place, SEIU is well positioned to collaborate with all aviation stakeholders to ensure emergency preparedness training. After the 2014 Ebola crisis, SEIU worked with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to train airport workers to help control infectious diseases.
Around the country, contracted airport workers are coming together in Airport Workers United, a movement of employees and their allies, raising their voices for $15 and union rights to make our airports safe and secure for passengers, employees and our communities. By sticking together, speaking out for change, and going on strike, these employees have won wage increases in Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, N.J., Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. More than 70,000 workers nationwide have either received wage increases or other improvements, including healthcare, paid sick leave and worker retention policies as a result of the campaign.