From the May-June 2017 issue of News & Letters
Chicago—Four women who do varied work at O’Hare Airport—from cleaning of airport facilities and airplane cabins to transporting passengers by wheelchair—described to activists in Chicago’s Rogers Park on March 25 their conditions of labor working for private contractors. They are doing what workers on the payroll of the airlines or the City of Chicago formerly did before the wave of privatization of city services, but now without union representation, prevailing wages, fringe benefits or enforcement of basic legal rights.
Most workers spoke in Spanish through translators. One woman described how she worked cleaning restrooms for close to the minimum wage, but would frequently be working for nothing at all when forced to finish her excessive work on breaks, lunch or after she had clocked out. One pregnant worker with a doctor’s note for light duty was denied work she could have done and was laid off instead.
Another woman who transported passengers to and from the gates by wheelchair said she was required to push two wheelchairs at once along with the luggage. This endangered the passengers in wheelchairs and nearby pedestrians and led to predictable back, shoulder and hip injuries for the workers. They were paid at less than minimum wage, as if they were always tipped.
The testimony of the women was part of their campaign to push an ordinance through the Chicago City Council entitling workers at city airports to prevailing wages—$15 an hour would be a good start—and prohibiting bosses from retaliating against employees organizing for a union.
While 35 of the 50 Aldermen had signed on to the ordinance—not including the local Alderman, an ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel—it will die if buried in committee. What is at stake is the human rights that airport workers have been fighting for.