On Monday, airport workers put their employer, Air Serv, and the Metropolitan Airports Commission on notice they are tired of waiting and will strike if no progress is made toward better working conditions and the right to form a union.
“We are preparing to strike to form a union,” Asmare Meshesha told MAC commissioners at the monthly meeting of the public corporation that oversees Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Meshesha was surrounded by several other employees of Air Serv, a Delta Air Lines sub-contractor, who work as cart drivers, wheelchair agents, cabin cleaners, lavatory and water service fillers, unaccompanied minor escorts and baggage handlers. Altogether, some 700 people are employed by Air Serv in jobs that are critical to airport operations.
The workers have been organizing to join the Service Employees International Union, but have been frustrated by different interpretations of federal labor law that have effectively left their workplace rights in limbo. So they are calling on Air Serv to voluntarily recognize their union and bargain a contract, a process that has taken place at other airports around the United States.
The union announced that nearly 75 percent of the eligible voters took part in a strike vote, with 98 percent voting to authorize a one-day, unfair labor practice strike. No date was set for the walkout, but workers stated they “are tired of retaliation and low pay, and hope to see movement by the busy Labor Day weekend.”
“We have tried everything: petitions, protests, going to airport commission meetings, speaking to the press, but nothing changes because they are making such high profits off of our work,” said Abdi Ali, a cart driver at MSP who has worked at the airport for over eight years.
“I am ready to join a one-day ULP strike because I know that while Delta is making record profits, MSP airport workers like myself and my co-workers should not have to live in poverty and be denied our right to organize and form a union.”
A vast majority of the workers are East African and say their campaign is important to overcoming Minnesota’s racial economic inequalities. In 2014 and 2015, the group rallied, protested and saw allies perform peaceful civil disobedience at the airport as they won a $1 pay raise and a landmark paid sick time policy.
But talks with Air Serv about recognizing the union have dragged on. Workers say some employees have faced retaliation for speaking out and some are finding it difficult to access paid sick time.
MAC Chairman Dan Boivin thanked the workers for speaking out at the MAC meeting and urged both sides to reach a resolution. “We hear you loud and clear,” he told the workers.
Two commissioners appointed last year by Governor Mark Dayton – Air Serv employee Ibrahim Mohamed and former flight attendant Dixie Hoard – expressed support for the organizing drive.
“I hope we do not need to strike, but we are ready to stand up for our rights if necessary,” Mohamed said.
“It is not a good situation for the workers here,” Hoard said. “I think they deserve better.”
Matt Ellingson, regional vice president for District 8 of Air Serv, addressed the commissioners following Meshesha’s testimony.
“Air Serv will continue to work toward a fair settlement of this issue,” he said. “We respect the rights of our employees to representation … We want to work together to achieve that goal.”
Workers are organizing through unions and other organizations to improve their lives. Union representation provides a voice on the job and the opportunity to improve wages, benefits and working conditions.