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How, after five years, Delta subcontractors at MSP won a fight to unionize

AirServ employees
SEIU
AirServ employees shown during a Metropolitan Airports Committee in August.

After a five-year campaign, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 announced last week that they had won the right to represent hundreds of airport subcontractors at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The move affects about 700 employees for Delta Air Lines subcontractor AirServ Corp., the company that manages the airport’s cleaners, cart drivers and luggage handlers. However, no date has been set yet for negotiations, SEIU officials said.

SEIU has been vetting airport subcontracted workers since 2011 and began holding public rallies and strikes over the last three years. “I’m excited with how far we came,” said Abdi Ali, who has worked at MSP for nine years and is currently a cart driver for AirServ. “It’s a big victory. We’ve been fighting five years and nobody was paying attention … soon we’ll have a contract with the company.” AirServ didn’t respond to emails requesting an interview.

‘Tipping the scales’

For years, Ali has been holding rallies with SEIU and attending meetings for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) asking for the right to unionize, but it wasn’t until about 500 AirServ employees threatened to strike last summer that the company started taking them seriously, he said. “That kind of pressure, certainly, along with everything else that’s happened over the years has tipped the scales,” said SEIU Lead Organizer Dan Mendez Moore.

AirServ has publicly stated that they respect the right for their employees to unionize. But Mendez Moore said the main dispute holding back progress in the conversation was over which jurisdiction the potential union members would fall — nationally under the Railway Labor Act, or locally under the National Labor Relations Act.

In the end, Mendez Moore said, it didn’t even matter. AirServ chose to voluntarily recognize the union after more than 70 percent of workers threatened to strike last August. “I think the most significant thing that changed was that workers have just increasingly been willing to put up a fight,” he said.

Last year, MAC raised airport workers’ wages $1 above minimum wage and also required employers to provide some paid sick time after SEIU used similar tactics, organizing several rallies and strikes among the airport’s workers.

SEIU also won the right to represent about 600 subcontracted janitors who clean big box retailers in the Twin Cities back in October, and Mendez Moore said it shows that more and more low-wage workers see forming unions as a way to address the nation’s income inequalities. “When people are given the opportunity, they want to be a part of a union,” he said. “The hard part is getting that opportunity.”

Cheaper health care and higher wages

While no date has been set just yet, SEIU officials said they’re hoping to negotiate for higher wages and cheaper health care for the airport workers in the upcoming contract with AirServ.

Abdi Ali said AirServ currently offers their employees health care coverage, but its monthly fee comes to about “two weeks pay,” he said. “It’s too expensive. I can’t buy that.” 

Currently, AirServ employees make $10.50 per hour, but Mendez Moore said they’re hoping to raise that — although for this upcoming contract, they’re not sure by how much yet. Last summer, SEIU organized airport workers around raising their wages to $15 an hour, but Mendez Moore said he’s not sure if $15 is right for this upcoming contract. “There’s a lot that we need to figure out internally,” he said. “As a movement that is very much our long term goal but the question is, ‘What’s the best avenue to get there?’”

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