Workers on strike at O’Hare International Airport and supporters demand a $15 hourly wage and union rights on Nov. 29, 2016. Credit: Photo by Sebastián Hidalgo

While Mayor Rahm Emanuel positions himself as a defender of the rights of immigrants, he’s refusing to back protections for low-wage workers at the city’s two airports, many of whom are immigrants and refugees.

And while the city spends billions of dollars – including huge contracts for political insiders – to upgrade its airports, which are depicted as “economic engines” driving local prosperity, thousands of workers who make that engine run are left in poverty and insecurity.

Last week, leaders of the City Council’s Black, Latino, and Progressive caucuses introduced an ordinance that would require contractors for ground services at O’Hare and Midway to pay wages and benefits comparable to those offered by building managers in the region. The ordinance would cover about 8,000 custodians, security officers, plane-cleaning crews, baggage handlers and wheelchair assistants.

It would also require contractors to sign labor peace agreements with unions seeking to represent their workers.  Such agreements bar retaliation against workers who seek to organize; they also prohibit workers from striking, picketing, or otherwise interfering with operations.

Currently, airport workers earn the minimum wage of $10.50 per hour, or not much higher, with no benefits. Wheelchair assistants get the tipped minimum wage, now $5.95 per hour, far below the city’s minimum.  “These aren’t high school students,” said Ald. Susan Garza (10th Ward), a sponsor of the ordinance.  “These are mothers and fathers trying to support their families.”

On top of that, they are subject to widespread wage violations and are often fired if they speak up – largely because many of them are immigrants and refugees, advocates say.

Large numbers of the lowest-paid airport workers are refugees referred to contractors by refugee settlement groups, said Izabela Miltko of Service Employees International Union Local 1, which has advocated for airport workers.

“Unfortunately, since they don’t know the language and don’t know their rights under labor law, they can be taken advantage of,” she said.

Last September, United Maintenance Co. Inc. paid an $845 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by its workers, who charged that they were not paid for work done before and after their shifts and during their breaks.

Wages went down when United Maintenance replaced a previous unionized custodial services contractor in 2012, after Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed a five-year, $99 million contract with the company. Emanuel defended the contract after mob associations by United Maintenance’s owner were revealed in a federal investigation.

One of the workers’ attorneys told Dan Mihalopoulos of the Chicago Sun-Times that “every single contractor” at O’Hare violates wage laws.  A survey of O’Hare workers by SEIU last year found “rampant wage theft” by contractors for janitorial, security, baggage and wheelchair services.

Wheelchair assistants are routinely stiffed of their full wages, Miltko said.  They’re paid the “tipped minimum wage” of about $6 an hour, with the employer required to make up the difference up to the full minimum wage if tips don’t cover it.  Miltko said employers require workers to report enough tips to cover that gap, no matter whether they received that amount.  They also prohibit workers from soliciting tips.

And workers have been fired for seeking redress, including a security officer who met with U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez last June. The worker was one of six employees of Universal Security Inc. to be fired after they participated in union activities or spoke to the media.

While Emanuel has taken a stance as a defender of immigrants against President Donald Trump, his City Council allies have dumped the airport workers’ protection ordinance in the Rules Committee, where, as Garza notes, “things go to die.”

Thirty-five aldermen – a solid majority – signed on as co-sponsors of the ordinance, although Ald. Walter Burnett and Ald. Michael Zalewski, who chairs the aviation committee, later removed their names. Earlier this week, airport workers protested at Zalewski’s ward office.

“How can we be a sanctuary city on the one hand and exploit workers on the other?” Garza asked. “That makes absolutely no sense.  If we’re going to be a sanctuary city and open our doors to immigrants, then we need to make sure they can make a living wage to support their families, because that goes hand-in-hand.

“You can’t do one without the other,” she said. “You can talk the talk but you need to walk the walk.”

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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