D.C.-area airport workers demand better health care, pay, job protections
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ARLINGTON, Va.—Benjamin Swartz has epilepsy. Sometimes it’s landed him in the hospital. It also leaves him on thin ice with the aircraft cabin cleaning contractor he toils for.

That’s because the contractor, hired by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA)—the agency that runs Washington’s Dulles and National Airports–won’t provide paid sick leave for its workers. Instead, it docks them “points” if they miss time because they’re sick.

And just like railroad workers, who are also battling their bosses, the freight railroads, over sick time, if a worker loses too many points he or she can be fired, union contract or not.

Lack of affordable health care coverage and the point penalties for getting sick brought dozens of workers for MWAA contractors, including members of Service Employees Local 32BJ—like Swartz—and Unite Here Locals 23 and 25 to National Airport September 21 for a pointed protest.

The demonstration was timed to remind the airport board, and the flying public, that MWAA is about to seek bids for a new master firm to manage all those airport contractors’ jobs—cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants, and skycaps among them.

That could mean big bucks to the winning company, and leverage for the workers to get their demands as part of MWAA’s requirements for the new pact.

So, led by 32BJ Vice President Jaime Contreras and Local 23 DC Chapter President Bert Bayou, they demanded the authority mandate contractors provide better pay and benefits.

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Specifically, they demand sick days and affordable health care coverage for the 1,000 or so airline cabin cleaners, wheelchair assistants and skycaps, and other contract workers at the two airports. Though contractors employ those workers, MWAA makes the decision.

Right now that decision for no paid sick days adds to Swartz’s suffering. When he suffers epileptic attacks, he not only sometimes winds up in the hospital, he gets docked points, he said in an interview after the workers’ rally.

“I’ve had seizures at work,” he said. “They keep workplace reports” and when he has to go to the hospital for treatment “I’ve been fighting and fighting” after coming out to keep from being penalized. “None of the bosses wanted to listen.

“I had to get an EEG (electroencephalogram) at Fairfax Hospital” after one seizure “and they wrote me up,” Swartz said of management. Two weeks later, he collapsed during a lunch break, was rushed to the hospital, spent two days recovering—and was written up. “And I get no paid sick days, either.”

One worker at Dulles, also a 32BJ member, told the crowd that working at the airports in those jobs “is a bumpy ride. If we call out sick, we get disciplined, accumulating points. If you’re not feeling good, you still gotta go to work.”

MWAA could change that situation, by ordering its contractors to change their practices with their workers, speakers said. The workers are “essential and should be treated as essential,” said supportive Service Employees Local 512 President David Broder.

Addressing the board—via a local TV camera–Northern Virginia Labor Federation President Virginia “Ginny” Diamond declared, “It’s your responsibility to run these airports efficiently and fairly. You can’t do that if you exploit these workers.” Other unions at the rally included the Painters, the Laborers, the Carpenters, and the Electrical Workers.

Said Contreras: “These airlines are making billions of dollars” with the aid of federal subsidies through the coronavirus pandemic “and the states” that house the two airports—D.C. and Virginia—“are subsidizing them. But who’s subsidizing the workers?” The answer: No one.

Why? Said Blair: “The MWAA controls everything.” The airport authority had no immediate comment.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.