Hundreds march at Newark airport for higher wages

Hundreds of Newark airport workers joined union leaders and federal, state and local elected officials Monday for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and rally to demand higher wages.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, former mayor and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the state Assembly's new speaker, Craig Coughlin, and others addressed more than 600 aircraft cabin cleaners, custodians and others who had gathered inside Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport, after marching through Terminal B, then outside along the airport road on the frigid but sunny federal holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.

Officials noted that King was pressing for economic equality when he was assassinated in April 1968 while in Memphis to support sanitation workers seeking higher wages.

"It's important for us to understand when we celebrate Dr. King, we have to celebrate what he stood for," Baraka told the large crowd inside Terminal C.

More than 600 airport workers carried placards reading "Justice for Airport Workers," "I AM a woman," and "I AM a man," and chanted in call-and-response refrains, "No justice! No Peace!" and "When we fight...We win!"

Many of the workers wore purple beanies of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union,which represents about 2,500 airport workers in Newark. Others wore the trademark red colors of UNITE HERE, the merged Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, which also represents some Newark airport workers.

About 10,000 people work in low-wage ground support jobs at Newark Liberty for firms contracted by Newark Liberty's main tenant, United Airlines, and other carriers there.

The unions have been gradually organizing airport workers into bargaining units at their respective companies in recent years, while at the same time pushing for higher airport wage requirements by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the which operates Newark Liberty in New Jersey and John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports in New York.

Workers at LaGuardia and JFK typically make more than their counterparts at Newark Liberty despite doing the same work at airports run by the same bi-state agency because New York State has a higher minimum wage than New Jersey.

Specifically, the minimum in New York -- which applies to workers at Kennedy and LaGuardia -- rose to $12 an hour on Dec. 31, and is scheduled to rise to $15 an hour as of Dec. 31, 2018, under the law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.

New Jersey's minimum wage, by contrast, rose to $8.44 an hour on Jan. 1.

The effective minimum wage at Newark Liberty is higher than that thanks to a Port Authority airport minimum wage policy that took effect in 2015, requiring airport tenants or their contractors to pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour. But that still lags behind the New York State minimum that applies to workers at Newark and JFK.

Millie Perez, a 47-year-old terminal cleaner at Newark Liberty who was at Monday's rally, said she makes $11.70 an hour. That's $1.60 above the Newark airport minimum, but still barely enough to cover the $950 rent on the 2-bedroom Newark apartment she shares with her twp kids.

"It's not much for me," Perez said in Spanish. "I'm always struggling."

The unions staged a similar airport march on the King holiday last year, with little immediate effect.

But Perez, her coworkers and their advocates are hoping things will be different this year, when Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is scheduled to be sworn-in Tuesday to replace Gov. Chris Christie.

Murphy, a Democrat who enjoyed union support in the November election, had appeared before the Port Authority Board of Commissioners during his campaign urging members to adopt a $15/hour airport wage that would apply to both sides of the Hudson River. The board declined.

But because the governors of the two states share control of the Port Authority through their power to appoint commissioners and to veto their actions, officials say Murphy will be able to do more than just urge the 12-member Port Authority board to raise airport wages.

Specifically, said 32BJ President Hector Figueroa, Murphy can direct the Port Authority's New Jersey commissioners to reconsider the airport wage issue, while working with Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, to insure that New York's commissioners also support a $15/hour airport wage policy.

Murphy issued a statement released by 32BJ, saying he was "proud to stand with all workers who demand a stronger and fairer New Jersey economy that works for every family."

"Today, we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy of fighting for justice - a legacy kept alive by airport workers fighting for a fair wage. Tomorrow, and together, we will turn the page and begin anew the work to strengthen our communities and our economy."

Dan Bryan, a spokesman for Murphy, declined to say just what concrete steps Murphy intended to take once he is sworn in.

Figueroa and Booker both said that, based on their conversations with Murphy, they were confident there would be action soon.

"Tomorrow we have a new governor in New Jersey," Figueroa said in an interview after the march. "We are not going to waste time, and aiport workers are going to get a raise."

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