Photo by Anne Fishbein

LAX wheelchair attendant Norma Torres gave a simple answer when asked why she joined 40-odd security screeners, baggage handlers and wheelchair aides in walking off their jobs last Thursday: “Because I need health benefits.” Torres, who gets $5.75 an hour after two years’ employment, explained, “I’m paying $132 a month to Kaiser plus 50 percent of the cost for an appointment. And if I’m not real sick, I can’t just take Pepto-Bismol — I still have to go to the doctor because Argenbright wants a doctor’s note for even one day off.”

The job action against Argenbright Security Services, an Atlanta-based contractor at LAX terminals 2, 5 and 7, snarled traffic on the arrival deck and left supervisors filling in on baggage X-rays. It was preceded by a spirited noon-hour rally of 400 to 500 unionists in support of a drive by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to organize workers at the Delta, Northwest and United terminals.

Torres walked out just before 8 p.m. Thursday and came back two and a half hours later, only to be told she was suspended. Her supervisor wouldn’t say for how long, but when she appeared for her shift at noon Friday she was not allowed to sign in and told to go home. Instead, at the advice of union organizers, she waited outside the terminal; 50 minutes later she was invited in by supervisors for a lecture about her misbehavior and a “second chance,” accompanied by a written warning that “If you abandon your post again for any reason you will be immediately terminated.”

Argenbright’s warning notices and the suspension violate federal labor codes forbidding retaliation for strikes over unfair labor practices, union leaders say. But Argenbright was given more than legal reasons to rethink its disciplinary actions on Friday, as 15 upset employees took their complaints to City Council.

Airport service workers, many of them still receiving the minimum wage of $5.75 per hour, are growing impatient with their static and subpoverty income and lack of health benefits or sick pay. The City Council– ordained “living wage,” passed in 1997, has yet to affect more than a fraction of them. Responding to jurisdictional issues raised by the airlines, the City Council reaffirmed in November that the ordinance does apply to LAX; however, coverage kicks in only when employers’ leases or contracts are negotiated or renewed. Consequently employees at United Airlines (which renewed its terminal lease this winter) are covered and began receiving the living wage April 23, while workers at most other terminals are not protected. At Northwest and Delta, terminal leases don’t expire until 2025, making a livable wage an issue that will have to be resolved — in the foreseeable future — at the bargaining table.

While some LAX contractors have accepted unionization on the basis of employee “card checks” (fast-food concessionaire California One agreed to negotiate with the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees union when a majority of workers signed cards), Argenbright has stubbornly resisted the drive launched by SEIU last summer. Though most of its 2,000 workers have petitioned for a card-check recognition, Argenbright management continues to insist on the longer, more cumbersome route of a National Labor Relations Board election.

Union supporters at Argenbright report that managers have pushed workers into small “captive audience” group meetings for anti-union sermons or one-on-one sessions to interrogate them about union activity, threatened their jobs, and transferred one staffer to an isolated work site so that she wouldn’t infect others with her pro-union views. Argenbright also issued a written “warning” in retaliation for delivery of a petition to management, say SEIU organizers. Asked to respond to the allegations, Argenbright made no comment.

Pro-union employees of other contractors have come under similar pressure — after promoting “living wage” meetings to fellow workers, Aisha Livingston was fired from her job at the W.H. Smith gift shop for selling too many Beanie Babies to a single customer, a policy she said was hitherto unknown.

The complaints from airport workers won a sympathetic response from several members of the City Council Friday. Laura Chick stressed the public-safety issues involved in a low-paid, high-turnover security force, Mike Hernandez said airlines had better listen to employee concerns, and Nate Holden labeled the suspensions “outrageous.”

Council Member Michael Feuer placed two calls to Argenbright’s offices and, unable to connect with management there, urged United Airlines to see that its contractors respected the right to organize. Mark Ridley-Thomas faxed United a request that the workers be allowed to return to work immediately. Feuer’s press secretary said United’s public-relations office told his boss, “Don’t forget, we’re the good guys — we’re the one paying the living wage.” Of course, this rejoinder failed to address the airline’s responsibility under the same ordinance to have its contractors adhere to the labor code.

While the suspensions were lifted, the warning letters had not been removed from workers’ files as of Tuesday. Two SEIU organizers, Dawnnette Modkins and Stephanie Arellano, face misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace and battery after a citizen’s arrest by a management supervisor; Arellano is alleged by police to have kicked an officer in the incident. They were taken away in handcuffs in what unionists labeled an attempt to intimidate workers.

Tuesday at noon, 250 union supporters, several carrying toddlers, marched through the terminals to the LAX administration building. Teamsters, machinists, hotel and restaurant workers, and other union members came out to support SEIU’s protest against “union-busting” tactics of threats, suspensions and warning letters. Rumored civil-disobedience actions failed to materialize but, union activists predict, could be the next tactic if workers’ rights are not respected.

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