August 21, 2008

LAX Service Workers Authorize Strike

By Art Marroquin

Unionized passenger service workers at Los Angeles International Airport overwhelmingly agreed to authorize a strike against their employers, officials announced on Thursday.

About 2,500 janitors, wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and other service workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1877 authorized their leaders on Wednesday to call for a strike if labor negotiations break down with their employers, who are contracted by airlines operating at LAX.

"We're hopeful that we'll see some movement in the negotiations and we hope the employers don't push the workers to walk out and call a strike," union spokesman Mike Chavez said.

The workers are demanding pay hikes, more health benefits and better job training.

The union launched labor negotiations in July with nine private firms charged with hiring airport service workers, who earn an average of $10.50 per hour. The union's labor contracts with eight employers, ranging in length from three to five years, have progressively expired since last month. One last contract is set to expire at the end of this month.

"The airlines must stop the tailspin that's hurting passengers and communities alike," said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877.

"They have failed horribly to provide professional, quality jobs for airport service workers here at LAX and across California," he said. "They have engaged in a tailspin that has forced wages and benefits down to a level where people cannot survive in these jobs."

Representatives from G2 Secure Staff, Air Serv Corp., Aviation Safeguards, Aero Port Services, Service Performance, American Building Maintenance, Lee's Maintenance, World Service and One Source declined to comment for this story.

A few dozen unionized workers waved signs and chanted pro-labor slogans during a brief rally held outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal on Wednesday afternoon. Some of the workers claimed that their employers are failing to negotiate in "good faith."

"How can the airlines expect us to keep coming to work with the money they pay us, when we can't raise our families, get a higher education or afford the gas to be able to drive here every single day?" said Robin Wilson, an American Airlines security guard who was hired by G2 Secure Staff.

A strike could deal a devastating financial blow to cash- strapped airlines operating at LAX, particularly as the busy Labor Day holiday weekend approaches, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"It would be a tad chaotic to say the least, so people might want to reconsider their travel plans and skip L.A. and head to San Francisco or San Diego instead," Kyser said. "The airlines would probably try to fill the jobs rather quickly, but the new workers would be thrown into the fray with minimal training, which would lead to more frustration among travelers because operations would significantly slow down."

With the state's unemployment rate at a 12-year high of 7.3 percent, the employers won't have a hard time finding people to fill the void left by striking service workers, according to Kyser. He warned that replacement workers crossing any potential picket lines should expect "lots of screaming and cursing from the strikers because they will be considered as scabs."

Airport officials agreed with Kyser's assessment and said they hoped for a quick resolution before the matter escalates into a strike.

"While it is not in our authority to mandate a remedy, we offer our encouragement and hope that both parties meet again soon to frame a solution that serves a common good," said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of the agency that operates LAX.

Other city officials have entered the fray by siding with airport service workers.

The Los Angeles airport commission adopted a policy in April aimed at improving contract oversight and training standards for the private companies that hire airport service workers at LAX. The policy change was suggested after a report released last summer found that private firms subcontracted by the airlines offer inadequate training and failed to replace faulty equipment.

"It is regretful that we have gotten to a point where a strike is being considered," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who chairs the committee that oversees LAX.

"If a strike is authorized, these workers will certainly be able to demonstrate just how vital they are to serving the people that travel through our airport."

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