News & Opinion

Police Arrest 5 as Airport Workers March for Better Wages, Work Conditions

Police arrested five people during a protest march for workers' rights on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of 32BJ SEIU)

Police arrested five airport workers and union leaders on Tuesday for blocking an entrance to Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) during a march to protest low wages, lack of benefits and bad working conditions including inadequate water and extreme heat, according to a release from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

Airport workers Shonda Barber, Damarkus Hudson and Avond Johnson were arrested alongside Niecy Brown, district director of SEIU Workers United; and Chris Baumann, Southern Region director of SEIU Workers United, after they blocked the airport entrance at Wilkinson Boulevard and North Josh Birmingham Parkway in an act of civil disobedience. 

Tuesday’s protest was part of a National Day of Action during which workers held rallies at American Airlines hubs in Charlotte, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Phoenix to demand good jobs for the majority Black, brown and immigrant workforce that helps to keep airports safe, clean, and running, the release stated. 

Workers and union organizers called on Congress to include minimum wage and benefit standards — including affordable health care and paid time off for the nation’s 300,000 airport service workers — in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2023.

a long line of airport workers march down a sidewalk next to a busy street
Airport workers march in west Charlotte on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of 32BJ SEIU)

The U.S. faces a full government shutdown if Congress fails to pass a temporary funding measure by midnight Sept. 30, but at the time of this writing showed no signs of progress toward passing a federal budget, which would include funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Organizers have pointed out that airlines often secure a extra funding and measures to support their operations through FAA Reauthorization, but the agency has historically left behind airport service workers who provide crucial services including wheelchair agents, cabin cleaners who clean planes and lavatories, ramp agents who load and unload bags, baggage handlers, security officers and customer service agents.  

At the rally, the workers demanded that Congress write protections for airport service workers into the FAA Reauthorization bill by including standards that will ensure the jobs have fair wages and affordable benefits.

“We’re short staffed because the pay and benefits are not enough for what we do. I’m working in 95-degree weather, carrying heavy bags of trash off planes without easy access to water,” said Barber, a Jetstream trash-truck driver who services American Airlines and who was arrested on Tuesday. “Congress needs to step up and make sure these are good jobs so they can retain experienced workers like me. That’s a win-win situation for workers and for passengers.”

police arrest a woman wearing a shirt that reads, "Airport Workers United"
Shonda Barber is arrested on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of 32BJ SEIU)

CLT service workers have been at the forefront of a countrywide battle for better wages and more acceptable working conditions.  In May, airport service workers employed by an American Airlines contractor, Jetstream, won their union in North Carolina’s largest NLRB union election since 1997 following months of organizing and protests in front of the airport

“I feel expendable, like I’m just another number to the airlines,” said Katie Otten, Jetstream cabin cleaner who cleans American Airlines planes. “I had to be transported in a wheelchair to the break room while I was at work because I was too sick to walk from the heat. I ended up in the hospital, where they diagnosed me with heat exhaustion and dehydration. We are already struggling with low wages and lack of benefits. We shouldn’t have to worry about risking our lives when we go to work.”

Katie Otten speaks at Tuesday’s protest. (Photo courtesy of 32BJ SEIU)

Workers like Otten often address Charlotte City Council during public forums to plead for elected officials to take action on their behalf. 

In August, a 40-person delegation delivered a petition and demanded that Jetstream management respect CLT workers’ right to organize for safe working conditions with access to clean drinking water and air conditioning. 

Tuesday’s release warned that fall, dubbed #SolidaritySeason by labor organizers, will bring a new wave of organizing to a movement that has seen increased momentum during the first three quarters, with 85,000 Kaiser workers, 150,000 auto workers, 26,000 American Airlines flight attendants, and Southwest pilots are on the brink of striking. 

“Tuesday’s action is the culmination of airport service workers across the country raising their voices to demand a reckoning across a system built in favor of profit-hungry corporations and major airlines,” the release read.

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