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Flying High

‘After 10 months of negotiations, more than 100 workers at LAX retail shops have approved a landmark three-year contract calling for raises and fully paid family health benefits. The agreement, between British-owned WH Smith and the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Local 814, guarantees at least $9.35 per hour -- a significant raise for most workers -- paid vacation and sick leave to staff at shops in all nine terminals. It marks a major milestone in the ”Respect at LAX“ campaign, a joint effort of HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), backed by the national AFL-CIO and several South-Central community groups.

The new health-care deal will make a big difference to salespeople such as Jackie McNabb, who was struggling to meet doctor bills for a kidney infection last year because she couldn’t keep up her $80-per-month insurance payments. The raises, 45 cents each in the second and third years of the contract, will bring base pay to $10.25 per hour in 2003, almost twice the minimum wage. Under the city‘s living-wage ordinance, leaseholders and contractors at the airport (and other city facilities) are mandated to pay $7.72 plus benefits or $8.97 hourly without them.

Unlike some airport employers, whose anti-union campaigns have involved arbitrary disciplinary actions and threats of layoffs and resulted in the filing of several dozen unfair-labor-practice complaints, Smith agreed to let employees decide without pressure or propaganda from managers or supervisors. In January, WH Smith announced that it would take a hands-off approach in the representation vote. The arguments for the union seem to have been readily absorbed by the work force; a neutrally supervised ”card check“ authorized HERE as bargaining agent. Negotiations took nearly a year, say labor and management reps, because ”We were starting from the ground up.“

Though this is the first union agreement among Smith’s nearly 500 airport and hotel outlets, ”It‘s a win-win situation for us and the associates,“ said Smith regional vice president Irv Singer.

”This will give us energy and motivation to work harder,“ declared McNabb, a customer-service representative at Tom Bradley international terminal, who has been with Smith for almost five years, translating for Japanese and Korean tourists.

”The Airport Commission is happy to see these issues resolved with peace and harmony,“ said commissioner and County Labor Federation chief Miguel Contreras. ”The process here should be an example for how card-check neutrality can work with other employers.“

Four minority-run businesses renting from or subcontracting from Smith have signed agreements to abide by card checks and will enter negotiations in January. This should bring an additional 70 to 100 employees into a contract with similar terms, says HERE organizer Francis Engler. Duty-free shops, which employ about 200 workers, have also agreed to a card-check process, says Engler, but the union has not yet been certified to bargain for them.

Progress has been slower on the economic front elsewhere at LAX, where businesses forced to pay the living wage think that’s good enough, said Jono Shaffer of the SEIU, whose Local 1877 represents about 1,200 baggage handlers, skycaps and wheelchair attendants working for Argenbright Security and Globe Security. Globe pays the $8.97 rate in lieu of giving benefits, but workers can‘t afford to buy a health plan on that wage, Shaffer said. Employers argue that they would lose clients to cheaper, nonunion competitors if they raised their fees to underwrite health coverage. About half of LAX’s baggage handlers and service workers remain outside the umbrella of union protection. Noted Shaffer: ”We‘re hoping the airlines -- to whom these costs are finally passed on and really make these decisions -- will step up and act as responsibly as Smith has here.“

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