Essential workers, bracing for the rush of spring break travelers, held a “day of action” at Portland International Airport (PDX) on Friday, March 19, to demand that the Port of Portland address racial inequities through a fair wage and benefit policy.
Wearing masks with the message “Airport Workers United”, janitors, wheelchair assistants and other airport service workers gathered outside the terminal, speaking with news media about the poverty they experience even while working at the airport.
A banner was unfurled overhead from the pedestrian skybridge with the message “Respect Us, Protect Us, Pay Us.” A truck circled the airport roadway with large digital displays of the same message and photos of PDX workers.
The workers, members of SEIU Local 49, marked one year since the COVID pandemic began and since they formally called on the Port of Portland to establish an Airport Workers’ Bill of Rights. This proposal demands the Port “build back better” by ensuring wages that are at least $3 above minimum wage, ensuring access to affordable healthcare, and expanding paid time off beyond the five days a year required by Oregon law.
“Airports across the country, like in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Jose are passing policies that require an airport workers’ minimum wage. It’s time that the Port of Portland do the same for all workers at Portland International Airport,” said Donald Martin, Passenger Service Agent at Huntleigh, PDX.
“With poverty level wages, affordable healthcare seems beyond reach. And I worry about passenger safety when we only have five days of paid time off. It puts many of us at the airport having to choose between getting paid or staying home if we feel sick,” Martin said. “The Port of Portland can implement the Airport Workers’ Bill of Rights and protect both workers and travelers and begin to address their new core value to acknowledge and actively work to dismantle institutional racism in our workplace.”
Subcontracted airport workers are disproportionately people of color, women, and immigrants—groups that have been unequally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic harm.
In December, Port of Portland executives announced it would create a wage standard for subcontracted airport workers for the first time, requiring $15 per hour starting July 1 of this year. Airport workers have called that woefully insufficient.
In January, PDX Passenger Service Agent Stan Edwards addressed the Port Commission, pointing out that he and hundreds of other PDX workers have made $15 for years, without any raise, and continue to live in poverty.
“It’s too low and too slow,” Edwards said. “We can’t wait another year for a raise. For me, that would mean another year of skipping doses of my asthma and diabetes medicine, or skipping meals. My coworkers and I need a raise now.”
On Friday, airport workers restated that position with a chant: “What do we want? A raise! When do we want it? NOW!”