O'HARE — A broad coalition of labor groups and political leaders joined more than 400 airport workers to demand higher pay and better working conditions at O'Hare Airport on Tuesday, causing a brief but thundering ruckus as service continued normally inside the terminal.
Hundreds of demonstrators packed the entire walkway between Terminal 2 and Terminal 3, chanting slogans and waving signs reading "Poverty Wages Don't Fly" passed out by uniformed members of the Service Employees International Union.
Many of the protesters had started their day in Streeterville, where they joined hospital workers and Uber drivers to rally for a $15 minimum wage.
Action is already well underway. Protesters stretching entire distance between Terminals 2 and 3. pic.twitter.com/nYEb5jiTPC— Alex Nitkin (@AlexNitkin) November 29, 2016
"For a year now, O'Hare workers have been standing up and telling anyone who would listen that they need better wages, they need respect and dignity on the job, and they need a union," said Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, leading off a news conference amid the protest.
The service union has been trying to rally airline subcontractors to unionize since 2011, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel moved to award a five-year janitorial contract to United Maintenance Co. Inc., spurring the loss of 320 union jobs at the nation's second-busiest airport.
In the 2011, the SEIU spent $80,000 to help Ald. Mary O'Connor win the 41st Ward seat representing the airport along with the far northwest corner of the city.
But the union pulled its support of O'Connor after she supported Emanuel's deal with United Maintenance Co. Inc., Morrison said.
In the 2015 aldermanic election, SEIU pulled its prior support for Ald. Mary O'Connor, whose 41st Ward includes O'Hare, after she supported Emanuel's deal with United Maintenance Co. Inc.
The union instead supported former firefighter Anthony Napolitano, who won the election and unseated O'Connor.
Napolitano was one of 12 aldermen — including City Council Progressive Caucus chair Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Latino Caucus chair Ald. George Cardenas (12th) — who joined the protest Monday.
Speaking at the press conference, Napolitano said public officials had neglected workers at O'Hare, even while they heavily pushed infrastructure development at the airport.
"At the city, state and federal level, every time you talk about this airport, you've touted it as an economic engine," Napolitano said. "Well an engine does not function without all its components, and these [workers] are the components that make it function. ... I'll stand with them for an honest and fair wage."
In all, 422 contracted workers responsible for handling bags, cleaning jets and helping passengers in wheelchairs petitioned the companies they work for, scoring permission to stage a one-day walkout with assurances of no retaliation from their bosses, according to Kisha Rivera, who works for the Chicago-based company Scrub, Inc.
Rivera reports to the airport at 4 a.m. for her shifts, vacuuming and restocking dozens of planes before the morning travel rush begins.
"The whole time, someone is standing over me yelling at me to work harder, which isn't helpful," Rivera said. "They treat us like trash."
Rivera and her co-workers earn $10.50 an hour, minimum wage in Chicago, which Rivera said was not enough to raise her family and pursue an education.
The Chicago Department of Aviation, for its part, "remains committed to maintaining a work environment that is safe and healthy for employees and expects the same commitment from its contractors and partners," according to a statement.
Meanwhile, separate representatives for Delta Airlines and American Airlines, which operate out of O'Hare Terminals 2 and 3, respectively, acknowledged workers' rights to organize but declined to take a position in labor discussions between the contract companies and their employees.
All the airport employees will return to work Wednesday, Balanoff said, but he dangled the possibility of pushing stronger action if contract companies don't meet their demands.
"Let's get this resolved, or else there will be more disruption out here," Balanoff said at the end of the press conference. "The next time we have to strike, we'll shut down this airport."
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