‘Poverty doesn’t fly.’ Charlotte airport workers rally for better pay and benefits

Charlotte airport workers rallied Tuesday for living wages, and better benefits and working conditions, at a time of historic heat waves across the country and soaring airline profits.

Hundreds of airport service workers — including cabin cleaners, baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants — walked about a mile along Wilkinson Boulevard to the front entrance of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. They were holding signs in English and Spanish that said, “We demand fair pay we can build lives on” and “Poverty doesn’t fly” as passing vehicles honked horns in support.

The rally was organized by the Service Employees International Union for Charlotte’s airport and other American Airline hub cities like Dallas-Forth Worth and Phoenix as part of a “National Day of Action.” Workers want good jobs for the minorities and immigrants who who help keep airports safe, clean and running, according to SEIU.

Three airport service workers and two out-of-state union officials were arrested at about 2 p.m. following the rally for sitting on the eastbound lanes of Wilkinson Boulevard and blocking the airport’s entrance at Josh Birmingham Parkway, Southern Region union spokeswoman Ana Maria Tinsly told The Charlotte Observer.

Earlier, workers shouted chants like “Fighting for respect and justice” and “When we fight, we win” amid the drumbeats of the ROP Drumline.

Avond Johnson, 22, of Charlotte, has worked as a cabin cleaner for American Airlines contractor JetStream since April. While Johnson enjoys his job, he said basic needs like water, air conditioning and fans should be available to employees. “People were passing out on the job,” he said about this summer. “It’s a humanity thing.”

Another cabin cleaner 21-year-old Damarkus Hudson of Charlotte, said he fainted from working in the heat just weeks ago. “We want and need change,” he said of conditions at the airport. “(Airplanes) wouldn’t be able to take off without us.”

Charlotte’s airport is the second-largest American Airlines hub in the U.S. and one of the world’s busiest airports.

While Charlotte cabin cleaners start at $14, nearly twice the state’s minimum wage, union workers say it’s not enough.

“Our essential services are meant to be provided at excellent level, but our own demands aren’t being met for local people,” said Bresette Hames, 25, of Gastonia, a cabin cleaner at the airport for two years. “We were essential and after COVID, it seems people and companies have forgotten about us.”

Hundreds of people marched Tuesday on Wilkinson Boulevard near Charlotte Douglas International Airport demanding a living wage, better working conditions and benefits to be included in the FAA Regulation bill.

The ‘summer of strikes’

All the activity comes amid a nationwide “summer of strikes” by auto workers, writers and actors, among others.

At CLT airport, workers were demanding minimum wage and benefits, including affordable healthcare and paid time off, be included in the Good Jobs for Good Airports standards in the Federal Aviation Authority Reauthorization bill. The FAA is responsible for regulating U.S. air travel.

The bill passed the House in July and awaits a Senate vote Sept. 30. However, a government shutdown on Oct. 1 looms if Congress does not pass the 12 appropriations bills that fund government operations.

Jessica McQuaig, an employee at Walmart, joins airline workers Tuesday as they rally along Wilkinson Boulevard in Charlotte.

Nationalizing worker concerns

Several union members from other states were part of Tuesday’s rally and march.

Christina Williams and Tanjanina Reynolds, both service union members working as cabin leads at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, said they came to Charlotte to show their support. At the New Jersey airport pay, the women said, pay starts at $19 an hour with free healthcare benefits and two weeks paid time off after one year.

Randall Bacon, chief of staff for service workers union in Pennsylvania, said he came to Charlotte with four other union members from his state. “This is a nationwide fight, not just a local fight,” Bacon said.

The travel industry will be hit with staff shortages and “dysfunction” for workers and travelers until airport service workers have livable wages and basic benefits, SSEIU said in a statement.

“If (travelers) saw the conditions we work in, they’d support our needs,” said Katie Otten, 42, a cabin cleaner at Charlotte’s airport since May. “We need to be happy and healthy.”

According to a 2017 UC Berkeley study, better wages encourage employee retention and improve airport security.

Hundreds of people marched along Wilkinson Boulevard on Tuesday near Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The rally was pushing for a living wage, better working conditions and benefits to be included in the FAA Regulation bill.

Airport workers unionized

The rally comes four months after nearly 500 airport service workers employed by American Airlines contractor JetStream ratified a vote to unionize.

It was North Carolina’s largest National Labor Relations Board union election since 1997, according to the SEIU.

CLT is one of the largest employers in the Charlotte region, with more than 20,000 people working for the airport and its business partners.

The entrance to Charlotte Douglas International Airport serves as the backdrop as workers stand Tuesday on a median while marching in protest for a living wage, better working conditions and benefits to be including in the FAA Regulation bill.