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Blue skies ahead? Union representing airport workers touts perseverance in the face of setbacks and hopes for better times post-Christie

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Kevin Brown, vice president and New Jersey state director, Service Employees International Union.
Kevin Brown, vice president and New Jersey state director, Service Employees International Union. - ()

Kevin Brown of the Service Employees International Union punctuates every gloomy sentiment with an upbeat remark.

It’s a cycle that the roller-coaster of news relevant to New Jersey-based union 32BJ SEIU — of which he’s state director and vice president — keeps him in.

Since last year, even as President Donald Trump came into office and made anti-union appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and Gov. Chris Christie evaporated the union’s best hope to raise local airport worker wages, the union won a contract for 7,000 airport workers employed by a dozen different contractors across Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia airports.

“Even in the midst of all the craziness going on, we’re managing to persevere and grow the union,” Brown said.

Taking the good with the bad has come to be the norm for the union. But the 32BJ SEIU, like other labor unions across the state, is energized about its prospects under Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy, whom they expect to be a champion for them — someone they expect more good news from than bad.

For the 32BJ SEIU in particular, Murphy represents an opportunity to reverse Christie’s decision to veto a bill last year they had thrown all their weight behind.

Encountering turbulence

Kevin Brown said his Service Employees International Union recently had a breakthrough with American Airlines.

“They recently encouraged their contractors to work with us,” he said. “So, they’ve taken something of a neutral stance. United has not — they’ve continued to fight us and make sure contractors fight us.”

United’s contracted labor makes up around 1,500 workers at Newark Liberty International, as the company owns about 70 percent of all the gates in the local airport.

But it’s not budging, Brown said.

“They’ve got their own problems with a lot of recent bad PR,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to talk to us like has occurred with American, but that hasn’t happened yet — so they’ve got PR problems with us too.”

The bill, S-3226, would have mandated a pay raise out of what Brown has described as “poverty wages” and required certain benefits for workers at Newark Liberty International Airport, Newark Penn Station and Hoboken Terminal.

“It wasn’t too much of a blow because it wasn’t unexpected; Christie has never been on our side,” Brown said. “This is the third piece of legislation we’ve worked on for members that he’s denied, so it’s no surprise. But at the same time, justice delayed is justice denied. These workers continue to make just over $10 an hour with no benefits or (paid time off) and that’s no good.”

Brown said his union supports Murphy because higher pay for service providers through the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is something he has been vocal about.

“We’re hopeful that Murphy will push to support these workers and support higher pay to reach living wage and health benefits,” he said. “With him being with us, we’ll pass it again in the Assembly and Senate and hopefully it would be signed under him. That will bring airport workers into a new light.”

Zakiyy Medina, a member of 32BJ SEIU, argues that these workers, who are in an industry that was once all-union but now almost entirely reliant on contract labor, need all the help they can get. He also argues that their work, which may include looking for any potential safety hazards on planes, is essential.

And there is a disparity between what the local airport workers get paid compared with other regional airport facilities. Workers at New York’s airports and transport hubs were slated to earn $15 per hour because of the state’s higher minimum wage.

Newark Liberty workers still make more than New Jersey’s minimum wage, which was enforced in a small victory the union saw several years back — having the Port Authority adopt a mandate requiring at least $10.10 an hour for all airport workers.

That’s about the amount that Medina makes in a security position at Newark Liberty – where he’s tasked with, among other things, looking for suspicious packages. He said it’s not enough for him or his peers; he’s counting on something more.

“As for me, personally, if my pay were to go up, I’d be able to help my grandmother pay bills, as she pays most of it now,” said Medina. “Honestly, I can’t do it with what I get paid now. This would change things for me.”

Brown’s message follows his usual pattern of both acknowledging trouble and reason for his union’s about 12,000 members to stay optimistic.

“It will take time, but we can provide workers hope and improve their lives — even in the face of political forces like Trump,” he said. “There’s no doubt it may take years to win in some areas, but our patience and tenacity always pays off.”

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