Airport Workers in Newark Join Strike Against Airline Contractor

By David Cruz

Cabin cleaners at Newark airport joined with others at seven airports across the country for a one-day work stoppage to call for wage increases and improvements to what they say are sometimes dangerous conditions. The Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ has been trying to organize airline workers – about 400 here in Newark – for several years now.

“This fight is about an opportunity for people who work hard, do the right thing, help these airports function to have a chance to support their families, not have to live in poverty and to make the airports engines of growth, rather than sweatshops in our midst, which is what they are now,” said Larry Engelstein, executive vice president of 32BJ.

The workers, who now make $10 an hour after the Port Authority mandated that minimum wage last year, say even that keeps them at or below the poverty line. They work for Tennessee-based Prime Flight Aviation, which is contracted by United Airlines for a variety of services, including cabin cleaners. Jasmin Lucas makes just over $20,000 a year as a full-time driver for Prime Flight.

“I was driving the van one day and a guy actually flew out of the van and it was just horrible. We told the manager. She told us to get another manager and go to the next plane,” she recounts. “The things that they’re doing at the job is not right at all, and if we don’t fight now, when will we fight.”

We couldn’t confirm workers’ accounts of conditions on the job and Prime Flight did not return our calls for comment. A spokesperson for United wouldn’t comment on workers claims, either, adding that he wouldn’t “get into” whether the airline has discussed the allegations with Prime Flight. As for today’s walkout?

“We worked closely with our vendor to ensure they had contingency plans in place,” said spokesperson Charlie Hobart. “We have had no impact to normal operations. There were no flight cancellations or delays as a result of today’s action.”

“You have workers at Newark Airport facing poverty wages, the inability to keep their homes, care for their children,” said Analilia Mejia, director of Working Families of New Jersey. “Some workers are even finding themselves homeless because of the poverty wages, all the while that CEOs are making tens of millions of dollars on airline profits.”

Before he resigned two months ago amid an investigation into United’s role in the so-called Chairman flight for former Port Authority chairman David Samson, United CEO Jeff Smisek received a $12 million compensation package. Meanwhile, workers here say Prime Flight management threatens them with firing if they try to organize.

“We get 56 to 60 planes a night, eight teams,” said Princess Morrison. “Our schedule is 10 to six; they got us staying 10 to nine, 10 to 10. That’s not our schedule. People got kids to take to school and in the handbook it tells us they need to give us three hours notice that we have overtime. We don’t get that and we cannot leave. If we leave, they threaten to take our IDs. Who wants their IDs taken? Nobody, because we need our jobs.”

Workers will be on the pickets for the rest of the day today, but as the heavy travel season approaches, they say you can expect to see them out here again very soon.