As travelers pass through airports on their way to visit their families this Thanksgiving, they should take note of the people pushing grandma's wheelchair, loading dad's golf clubs, or quietly mopping the terminal.
These are some of the people who have been bypassed by a recovering economy. They suffer disproportionately from stagnant wages that have about 5 percent less buying power than they did five years ago. They are struggling to feed and shelter their families on wages that put them at or near the poverty line.
Some of them emerged from their often invisible roles last week to conduct a one-day strike for a living wage at airports in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, New York, Newark, and Fort Lauderdale. The demonstration ended before the surge in air travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, and the airports reported no major disruptions.
Although Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ helped organize the demonstration, the workers are not union members. But they are desperate enough that they struck without union protection, knowing they would lose a precious day's pay and possibly face retribution when they returned to work.
This never should have happened in Philadelphia, where voters last year approved a $12 minimum wage for city subcontractors. That should include the companies airlines contract to do jobs like cleaning aircraft cabins and handling baggage.
But it wasn't until the city secured a clause in the airport lease in June requiring subcontractors to follow the law that they did - sort of. Even now, they are balking at paying $12 an hour to about 200 wheelchair attendants, claiming they receive tips. Whether they do or not doesn't matter, though, because tipped workers were not excluded from the new rules.
Fortunately, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has promised to get them their required pay after he takes office in January. "We passed a law requiring a $12-an-hour wage, and they are going to follow that," Kenney told striking workers. Maybe the city should hold up the subcontractors' payments until they start playing by the rules. Too much public investment has been made and promised at the airport for subcontractors to deny workers the modest wages they're entitled to.
When low-wage workers get a raise, they tend to spend the money on food, shelter, and other necessities, fueling the regional economy. So contractors who aren't paying the minimum wage are hurting the city as well as their workers.