Air Safety on the Cheap

They're responsible for airport security but contractors still make poverty wages

Arguing that Jackson and his co-workers can't form a local union, Air Serv fought the effort. If they want to organize, the company said, they'd need to make their case to 700 Air Serv security guards at seven airports across the country. In May, the dispute went to the National Mediation Board, which ruled for Air Serv.

The ruling put an end to SSOBA's efforts, but now a bigger union is looking into the issue: The Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ is a massive and powerful union that has grown significantly in the past decade, in large part by organizing security workers.

Ten years ago, 32BJ represented about a thousand security guards, mostly bundled in with other commercial- and residential-worker contracts. After September 11, as demand for security services ballooned and the industry grew, 32BJ began aggressively organizing guards all over New York City and now represents 10,000 guards here alone.

Diana Eliazov

From early on, the union's strategy has been to marry demands for better pay and benefits to a call for better training and higher professional industry standards. In every campaign, the workers' demands are presented as not just a wage grab, but as a way to improve security standards to benefit everyone. It has been a successful tactic.

At Air Serv, the tactic might be especially effective—partly because of Argenbright's shady history, but also because unions have already made inroads in other corners of security at local airports. TSA screeners are unionized. So is the Port Authority Police. And in the past two years, 32BJ successfully unionized security contractors working for FJC, a Long Island security company that provides perimeter, cargo, and vehicle security at New York's three major airports. 32BJ instituted a new 40-hour training program for FJC employees, but also nearly doubled their wages. FJC airport-security officers now start at more than $16 an hour.

Rob Hill, the organizing director for the union, says the difference in training standards and pay can be a point of leverage.

"You have people going to the airport, where the peripheral security that the Port Authority controls are at one standard," Hill says. But once inside the terminal, "it's still low-bid, whatever contractor will do it the cheapest and therefore pay their workers the least with the least benefits. I don't know if the public knows that for the officers, it's still a poverty job at the airport, where you'd think security would be the highest priority."

32BJ is still in the early phases of planning a campaign, but if it does get involved, it will work for better training and pay for airline contractors across the metro area.

"You can't make change working on one contractor at a time, because the airlines just change contractors," Hill says. "You need to get everyone to agree to a new standard, so all the contractors are competing on an even field."

Still in its early stages, the union's campaign could take months or years to bear fruit. If it's successful, Prince Jackson's wages could double. Jackson says that would be great, but even a bump up to $10 an hour would make a huge difference in his life.

"I could almost pay my rent with that," Jackson says. "Have a couple dollars left over even—not for me to save, but I could send my son $20 a week, take a little bit of the burden off of his mother."

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