Union solidarity drives fight for $15 at MSP Airport

Ahmed Abdul Aziz, a member of Teamsters Local 120 who works for a rental-car agency, speaks before the Metropolitan Airports Commission in favor of a $15 minimum wage.

They may work different jobs or carry different union cards, but workers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are fighting together to raise MSP’s minimum wage to $15.

And their solidarity is paying off.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission, which oversees operations at MSP Airport, is advancing an ordinance that would raise the minimum wage in three increments, reaching $15 per hour by July 1, 2022. That’s the same date ordinances in St. Paul and Minneapolis tick up to $15 for large employers.

At a final public hearing on the draft ordinance yesterday, commissioners listened to testimony from airport workers who stand to benefit, including members of the Service Employees International Union, Teamsters Local 120 and UNITE HERE Local 17.

Obang Okelo, a Local 17 member who works for airline caterer LSG Sky Chefs, told commissioners the raise would help him finally afford health insurance. For Michael Schofield, who works in an airport bookstore, the raise would mean more time to spend with his family.

“I work full time for Delaware North, but I have to have a second job because, like many, I have a family to support,” Schofield said, adding that he sees his co-workers at the bookstore clock out after an eight-hour shift, only to clock back in for work at another airport job. “They’re essentially working 16-hour days,” he said.

Obang Okelo tells commissioners raising the minimum wage would help him afford health insurance.

SEIU Local 26 member Glen Brown, a wheelchair attendant at MSP, said it’s not right that airport workers get poverty wages while corporations making money off the airport earn record profits. For most of the five years he’s worked at MSP, Brown told commissioners, his hourly pay has been under $11.

“I make this amount despite seeing the news stories about airlines making billions in profits,” Brown said. “I make this much despite seeing news stories about MSP Airport being one of the best in the country since 2016. I make this despite seeing airline CEO’s like Ed Bastian at Delta making $6,300 an hour.

“That just doesn’t sound fair to me.”

Several community supporters at the hearing agreed.

“It’s not right that we have a world-class airport … and depend on poverty wages in order to provide that service,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, a DFLer from Golden Valley, said.

Mary Sansom, a retired member of Machinists Local Lodge 1833, urged commissioners to put themselves in airport workers’ shoes.

“These are not easy jobs, and minimum wage is not sufficient,” said Sansom, who worked at MSP for 47 years. “And if anyone in this room believes that surviving on minimum wage is OK, then I challenge you to do it.”

Fortunately, the MAC appears to be taking workers’ concerns seriously.

Last August, the MAC unveiled an initial draft of the wage ordinance. It included language workers oppose, including a lower wage floor for tipped workers, known as the “tip penalty,” and exemptions for employers with collective bargaining agreements.

Misrak Anbese (R), an SEIU Local 26 member and longtime airport employee, appears before the MAC with Local 26 Presdident Iris Altamirano.

A month later, airport unions turned out hundreds of members and supporters to a public hearing on the proposal. Over 50 testified, and all spoke in support of a $15 minimum wage for all MSP workers, with no carve-outs or exemptions.

That’s exactly what they got just two weeks later, when the MAC revised its draft ordinance. Now, union organizers anticipate a vote in February or March.

Airport workers got more good news earlier this month, when the MAC released results from a survey of airport employers. Over 80% of those who responded anticipated the wage hike would not affect their ability to do business at MSP, and nearly 90% said the change would not impact the number of workers or total hours on their payrolls.

At the public hearing Tuesday, a handful of airport concessionaires disputed the survey results. They echoed now-familiar warnings about job cuts and business closings heard during debates over the minimum wage in Minneapolis and St. Paul in recent years.

But Wade Luneberg, Local 17’s recording secretary, said airport employers will lose experienced workers to neighboring cities if their wages fail to keep pace. And the airport, which has been showered with awards for its efficiency and service in recent years, has an interest making sure that doesn’t happen.

“These workers are the first and last impression for the flying public, and literally care for the public,” Luneberg told commissioners. “They work in a secure environment that isn’t easy to get to – or into. They keep challenging schedules, balancing multiple jobs and family commitments. They’ve made a commitment to this facility, and they’ve made a life here at MSP.

“Airport workers deserve $15.”

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