“Thousands Of LAX Workers Set For Walkout On Thanksgiving Eve,” the CBS Los Angeles headline blared.
The words conjured images of empty check-in counters littered with orphan luggage tags, malfunctioning automatic ticket machines flashing “Please See Attendant,” luggage conveyor belts grinding to a halt… at one of the most stressful airports in the country… on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
Please let this be some sick joke, we begged in silence.
And somewhere, some deity heard our prayers.
“It's not really a strike or a walkout, but it is going to be an action none the less,” says Martin Terrones, Communications Coordinator for SEIU United Service Workers West. The “action” will take place at noon on Wednesday, when approximately 1,200 individuals will march down Century Boulevard to Sepulveda.
So, um, just so we're clear: the airport workers will not be leaving their jobs?
“Airport workers who have that day off, or airport workers who are getting off shift or start a shift later on will be participating, but the workers that are currently on the clock will not be walking off,” says Terrones.
The confusion arose earlier today when Andrew Gross-Gaitan, the director of the Southern California Airports Division of SEIU, was interviewed on KNX radio. CBS Los Angeles quoted Gross-Gaitan saying, “It's entirely possible there will be significant travel delays.”
What he actually said was, “We will be marching down Century Boulevard, and it is entirely possible that there will be significant traffic delays.” (Emphasis ours.) Listen for yourself–his comment is at 1:25.
Let that thought wash over you like a post-turkey dinner, tryptophan-induced calm. We repeat: you will not be trapped in LAX purgatory on the happiest of all holidays.
Now that that is straightened out–what is it airport employees are so worked about?
“We're looking at thousands of workers who may face their family benefits being cut,” Gross-Gaitan told KNX. “There is one worker whose wife is literally dying of liver cancer, and this has been going on for close to a year. The families of these workers are really in crisis.”
Workers families will be driven off their healthcare plans if LAX does not resolve the situation soon, Gross-Gaitan said.
It may be a little more complicated than that, though. For starters, the union's complaint is not with LAX itself but with a contractor–Aviation Safeguards.
In December, Martin Terrones of SEIU says, Aviation Safeguards “decided to just rip the contract apart and say that we don't recognize the union anymore, and informed the workers that they would no longer be providing family healthcare.”
Joe Conlon, Regional Vice President for Aviation Safeguards, the company that employs 465 workers in areas like baggage handling, cargo screening, wheelchair assistance and security, tells a different story. He says the employees left the union voluntarily.
“They are a dedicated group of employees and they voted almost a year ago to leave the union. It was their vote. They were nearly unanimous in their position,” Conlon says.
Terrones shoots back: “That's what Aviation Safeguards is claiming, but they haven't been able to show concrete proof to the union–signatures, etcetera.” The union wants a mediation, and says the company refuses to come to the table.
Edgar Rivas has worked as security guard for an Aviation Safeguards at LAX for six years. He backs up Conlon's claim that the employees left the union voluntarily only a few years after joining.
“I was pro-union at one point,” Rivas says. That was three years ago though, before he and his co-workers organized. The way he tells it, SEIU worked hard to convince employees to demand a union contract, and eventually they did. Once the union had the contract, Rivas says, they stopped caring about workers at the airport.
“If any employee had any problems or complaints they would reach out to the union, and the union never really did anything–they never really checked up on us. Once they came and they got the contract, they disappeared,” Rivas says.
He says now that he and his co-workers have left the union, he's making two dollars more an hour. He prefers the different insurance too–it's a PPO, as opposed to the HMO with family benefits he had while he was with the union.
It's the family benefits that the union insists some workers–including the one Gross Gaitan referred to on KNX, the one whose wife is dying of cancer–are very upset to have lost.
We've reached out to that man, Jose Lobera, who the union says has worked for 12 years as wheelchair assistant for Aviation Safeguards at LAX. We'll update when we hear back.
In the meantime, back to you, holiday traveler: relax, LAX will just be the standard amount of stressful on Wednesday.