By David Cruz
It looked more like a campaign rally for Ras Baraka than a union rally. Baraka partisans outnumbered airport workers outside Terminal C at Newark Airport this morning. It was ostensibly a rally in support of a living wage for fast food workers, who are striking across the country today. Baraka, who’s building labor support for his Newark mayoral run, has made economic equality a campaign issue.
“Anybody that’s opposed to that is inhumane,” he said. “Anybody that’s opposed to that is simply greedy. There is enough wealth to clothe and feed the people of this city, this state, this community that is being generated all the time. There is enough wealth.”
Baraka said he didn’t think he was co-opting a union effort for his own political purposes.
“Absolutely not,” he insisted. “They are endorsing us. This was their way of saying they endorse Ras Baraka for mayor. Absolutely.”
Kevin Brown, the vice president and state director of the Service Employees International Union, said today’s event was definitely a union event and not a Baraka campaign event. He says workers across the state are laboring under minimum wages that keep them at near poverty levels. He says most jobs at the airport used to be union jobs.
“From the people who push your wheelchairs and the people who drive the carts, to the people who do the security behind the TSA, to the people at the front desk, most of them are now contracted workers,” he said. “The cabin cleaners, the terminal cleaners. The entire airport essentially has been contracted out.”
Workers like Rassan Roane, who cleans the wide-body airliners, say minimum wage is barely enough to keep his family above water.
“I make it stretch as long as I can, but it’s not enough,” he said. “Sometimes, you gotta go without some things.”
Several of the airport vendors we reached out to did not return our calls today. Baraka says a Newark mayor can have an influence on wages and conditions at the airport by using the office as a bully pulpit and leveraging relationships with corporate and business leaders, something which he promises to do in the interests of the unions who — today — willingly let him hitch his candidacy to their issue.
Organizers say they don’t feel like their message is diluted by associating themselves so closely with one candidate. A vote for Ras Baraka, they say, is a vote for workers rights, whether that’s obvious to observers.