NEW YORK—The night before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a group of sanitation workers in Memphis who were striking for better working conditions and higher wages. “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” King said to them. On Monday, 45 years later, some 1,000 airport workers, union members, and elected officials gathered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to protest for the same cause.
“We demand justice and dignity for airport workers today as we celebrate the dream of Dr. King,” said Public Advocate Letitia James at the protest. “This is a campaign for fair and living wages for airport workers today.”
The protesters held a rally and march at LaGuardia Airport, with the NYPD on close watch. A handful of city council members marched with the group. Some protesters occupied the 94th Street Bridge, refusing to move when police ordered them to clear the passageway. As a result, approximately 30 people were arrested, including Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Ydanis Rodriguez, and Congressman Charles Rangel.
“I think it’s important to fight for workers,” said Van Bramer as he was escorted away by police. “My parents were workers, they didn’t make very much money. I’m fighting for them too.”
The airport workers asked for three main things: a significant increase in pay, an affordable health care plan, and paid time off.
The average wage for an airport service worker is $8 per hour. Many workers are enrolled in public assistance programs and receive food stamps even when they are working full time jobs.
“You can’t support a family on $8 an hour,” said Prince Jackson, a security officer at John F. Kennedy Airport.
Jackson has been working at JFK as an employee of AIRSERV for four years. He started at $8 per hour and is still earning the same wage now. He has been protesting with his colleagues for three years. Even though he has not seen any changes yet, Jackson is confident that change will come as more and more people get involved in the cause.
“When we started it was just security officers at JFK, for one company. Now all the companies and service workers at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark are in the same fight together,” said Jackson.
The protest has been one of the biggest for airport workers in the city. But Jackson said the protesting will not stop until they can secure a better wage, benefits, and paid holidays through a contract with the Port Authority.
“This is a big one,” said Jackson. “But we’re not done yet. Not until victory is won. So they’re going to get bigger.”
Yi Yang is a special correspondent in New York.