December 16th, 2016
By PATRICK McGEEHAN
After seven months of negotiations, thousands of airport workers in New York and New Jersey have come to terms on their first union contract. But it does not address an impending anomaly that will leave workers on opposite sides of the Hudson River earning different pay for doing the same work.
The union that organized the workers, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, reached a deal on Thursday with 11 companies that provide services at the three major airports that serve New York City. The proposed contract would give the workers greater job security and more regular schedules, among other improvements in their working conditions.
But the contract does not cover the terms usually considered most important in a labor deal: wages and benefits. That omission is a product of the complex hierarchy at the airports, which are operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
By not addressing pay, the contract highlights a quirk to be ushered in on Dec. 31, when the minimum wage for all workers in New York City will rise to $11 an hour from $9. That increase will raise the minimum wage for workers at La Guardia Airport and Kennedy International Airport from the hourly minimum of $10.10 that the Port Authority requires that employees at its facilities be paid.
But workers at Newark Liberty International Airport will not get an increase from the $10.10 they now earn. That is because the Port Authority has agreed to raise the minimum wage at its facilities to match the prevailing minimum where they are. New Jersey’s minimum wage is set to rise on Jan. 1 to $8.44 an hour from $8.38 an hour.
The gap could widen in the next few years. New York plans to gradually raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, while New Jersey’s minimum is set to rise only to cover cost of living increases.
“I don’t think it’s fair that a New York worker can get $15 doing the exact same job that I do and I don’t get $15,” said Broderick Cooper, who has worked as a skycap at Newark Liberty for 27 years. “It’s not the Port Authority of New York or New Jersey, it’s the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.”
But Mr. Cooper, a 45-year-old resident of Hillside, N.J., said he was pleased to have his first union contract to vote on. “This finally gains a level of respect for a lot of the common workers,” he said, adding that the agreement would yield “fairness and fair scheduling, fair breaks and no unfair workloads.”
He and about 8,000 other members are scheduled to vote to ratify the contract before Christmas, which is likely to head off a threat that they might strike amid the busy holiday travel season, said Hector Figueroa, president of Local 32BJ.
“This is a very good first step in the campaign for 15 and a union,” Mr. Figueroa said in an interview, referring to the national Fight for 15 movement started by fast-food workers in Manhattan who demanded union representation and a $15 hourly minimum wage.
That campaign has yielded disparate results across the country. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, embraced it and pushed lawmakers to adopt a schedule for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in New York City and surrounding suburbs by 2019 and to at least $12.50 an hour upstate by 2021.
Fast-food workers in New York are on a path to the $15 an hour minimum wage they sought, but they are not unionized. And airport workers in Newark have a union contract but no path to a $15 minimum wage.
For years, Local 32BJ has shepherded dozens of members to the Port Authority’s monthly board meetings to demand increases in the minimum wage for all workers at the airports. Mr. Figueroa said the union would continue to press the board to raise the agency’s mandated minimum wage to at least $15.
That appears unlikely to happen while John J. Degnan is the board chairman. Mr. Degnan was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican who vetoed legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he has been clear in his opposition to telling employers how much to pay their workers.
At a Port Authority board meeting on Sept. 22, Mr. Degnan laid out the complications of setting pay at the airports: “These are not our employees,” he said. “These are employees of subcontractors of entities who do business with airlines with whom we do business. It’s about three tiers below.”