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O'Hare Baggage Handlers Set Strike Date for Tuesday After Thanksgiving

By  Dong Jin Oh and Heather Cherone | November 21, 2016 9:33am | Updated on November 21, 2016 1:23pm

 O'Hare International Airport.
O'Hare International Airport.
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O'HARE — Thanksgiving air travelers breathed a sigh of relief as workers at O'Hare International Airport who handle bags, clean jets and help passengers in wheelchairs say they will strike only after the holiday, on Tuesday Nov. 29.

The one-day strike, announced Monday morning at O'Hare, is part of an effort by workers to win a minimum wage of $15 an hour plus added safety measures.

There were fears that the group would strike this week around Thanksgiving, one of the busiest times of the year for airline travel. But workers instead picked the Tuesday after the holiday.

"It was never our intent to disrupt travelers during the holidays," baggage handler Raquel Brito told reporters Monday morning, adding "we know what it's like to miss Thanksgiving without families."

"We respect families traveling to be together," said Brito, who works in the United Airlines terminal.

The group is not unionized but is receiving assistance from Service Employees International Union Local 1.

"Despite helping to generate $8 billion in profits for the airline industry, most O’Hare Airport workers are forced to survive on minimum wage or less," the group said in a prepared statement. 

Last week, the workers, who are employees of contractors hired by the airlines, voted overwhelmingly to strike over the upcoming holiday season.

It is unclear what effect the strike will have on air travel. Union officials have said the intent is to create "a disruption" but not shut O'Hare down. One transportation expert told the Associated Press that similar job actions at other airports have ranged "from noticeable to marginal."

The striking group has also filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration saying working conditions are dangerous. Employees are regularly exposed to "health and safety hazards" and have suffered injuries including sprains, fractures, head trauma, crushed digits, eye hemorrhaging, needle punctures, and burns, they say.

In a statement issued by the Chicago Department of Aviation, city officials said they have had "held discussions with the airlines" and "does not anticipate any disruption in service" because the strike.

"We remain committed to maintaining a work environment that is safe and healthy for employees and expect the same commitment from our contractors and partners," according to the aviation department statement.

Brito, the baggage handler who spoke to reporters Monday morning, said because her fellow employees are paid so poorly "O'Hare airport workers often can't afford a proper Thanksgiving."

She said after she injured her back on the job, she had to pay her medical expenses out of her own pocket, about $3,000. She also claimed that the contractors they work for threatened and harassed workers for previous public statements over pay and benefits.

Among the group's supporters are U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents large portions of Chicago, and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th.)