On one of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s busiest days of the year, the low-wage workers who make holiday travel happen put the public on notice they will no longer settle for poverty-level wages.
Airport workers and their supporters – about 100 people total – rallied outside the arrivals area of Terminal 1, showing support for both an ongoing effort to form a union and legislative attempts to raise the state’s minimum wage. The demonstration was part of a week of action targeting low-wage employers.
Workers who clean planes, transport seniors and assist passengers with disabilities at MSP earn, on average, $7.73 per hour with very limited benefits.
Wages have bottomed out in recent years, as airlines have outsourced passenger services to low-wage subcontractors. That “race to the bottom” may be good for profits, but it’s bad for workers and their families, according to Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union Local 26, which is working to organize about 600 workers at MSP.
“The cost of flying has gone up so much. Many people would be surprised to learn that money does not end up in the pockets of workers,” Morillo said. “In fact, many of the people who work here at MSP live in poverty.”
Samson Yeshitla is among them. After working 19 months as a baggage handler, he still earns minimum wage, $7.25 per hour. Yeshitla took a second job to help support his wife and two children, but it’s taken a toll on his life at home.
“I don’t have enough time to see my children,” Yeshitla said. “When I get home at night, my children are asleep. I leave for work before they get up in the morning.”
Abenezer Madde, a cabin cleaner, began working at MSP for minimum wage four years ago. Now, he said, he’s reached the top hourly wage scale of $8.10.
“We are not here today to ask for some kind of special treatment,” Madde said. “We are here to ask for basic human rights,” including “wages that can feed a family” and benefits that include vacation and paid sick time.
Madde and other employees of non-union subcontractors at MSP need not go far to find examples of workers being paid higher wages to do similar jobs. Union janitors at the airport, members of Local 26, earn close to $14 per hour with health care benefits.
“If you clean the airport, you have health care,” Morillo said. “If you clean inside the airplane, you have nothing.”
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who joined the rally, said that if subcontractors and airlines are going to pocket fees paid by airport travelers, lawmakers should raise the minimum wage to ensure the families of workers like Yeshitla and Madde don’t live in poverty.
Voters in Washington recently approved a $15 minimum wage for hospitality and transportation workers in and around the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a victory that could spark momentum for workers at MSP.
“The airport doesn’t work without their hard work,” Ellison said. “These folks are hard working. They deserve better, and we’re going to make sure they get better.”