Airport workers plan to crash JFK party

State Sen. James Sanders says contract workers at JFK should be paid higher wages as the airport expands with the help of tax-free bonds. Photo by Rich Bockmann
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Delta Airlines and the Port Authority plan to cut the ribbon Friday on a $1.2 billion expansion to Kennedy Airport’s Terminal 4, but as the airport continues to grow, those who work at JFK and live in the neighborhoods surrounding it said they are not sharing in the wealth and they are planning to make their voices heard on the big day.

For several months now, security workers at Global Elite and Air Serv, two companies contracted by airlines at JFK, have been trying to unionize, citing low wages and poor benefits.

“The median wages for these service jobs at Kennedy and the other Port Authority airports are between $8 and $9 an hour .... those are really fast-food wages, and these are again for security guards and other people caring for this vital transportation infrastruc­ture,” Paul Sonn, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, said at a labor rally in Queens Village last week.

According to a New York University survey, about a quarter of the 67,000 employees at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports work in service positions such as security, baggage handler and cabin cleaner, and the vast majority of them are contracted workers.

Sonn said that 20 to 30 years ago airport employees had better jobs working directly for the airlines, but a trend toward low bidding contracts that started with industry deregulation and accelerated by the recession has left airport jobs on par with those at Walmart.

Nationwide, he said, 60 percent of job growth during the recession has been for jobs paying $12 an hour.

“It’s really worse in New York because New York is the most unequal economy in the country and is one of the top two high cost-of-living cities in the United States,” he said.

Other airports, however, have been able to enact policies requiring airlines to pay workers living wages.

Sonn said the difference is those airports are usually controlled by local municipalities, whereas the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is controlled by two state governors.

“The Port Authority is more insulated from grassroots pressure because it’s controlled by the two governors,” he said. “If it was controlled by New York City, I think it would have had a living-wage policy enacted a while ago.”

The Port Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

State Sen. James Sanders (D-Jamaica) and City Councilmen Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) supported the workers’ efforts.

“The airlines play this cat-and-mouse game and say you need to speak to the Port Authority,” Richards said. “It’s baloney.”

A Delta spokeswoman declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate as the workers are not Delta employees.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 6:57 pm, May 23, 2013
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