On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, employees at the Philadelphia Airport joined a one day national protest to bring attention to the fact that many of them are making minimum wage, or even less. Despite the fact that Mayor Nutter signed an executive order in May, 2014 stipulating that by early 2015 all city contractors be paid a minimum wage of $10.88 an hour, some airport contractors had found ways to circumvent the new rule.
This means for many domestic business travelers and international vacationers, the first Philadelphians they get to meet are laborers making $7.25 an hour plus tips.
This is important, because an airport is a traveler’s first impression of a city. I go through our airport maybe 10 times a year, and it’s not bad, for a large east coast city. It doesn’t have the sleek shuttles of New York’s JFK, nor the gleaming architecture of Boston’s Logan, but it is serviceable and well-laid out. And it’s a damned sight better than the rusted post-apocalyptic hellscape full of hostile trolls that is Newark. But having first time visitors welcomed to Philadelphia by exhausted and underpaid workers sends the wrong message about where we are headed as a city.
Employers hire “Independent contractors” with stress on independence. You’re independent now, like the Minutemen, like the soldiers at Valley Forge! And let’s not even talk about urine testing for drugs, the program that ensures that no one who cleans airplane toilets ever has any fun on weekends.
After the one day strike, which disrupted no flights and caused very little fuss, the contractors, as is usual in these situations, had no comment.
Just like they had no comment after a similar protest of airport workers in November. Just like they would not comment on Sarina Santos, a baggage handler who was fired in May for “job performance issues” shortly after she publicly complained about her wages to POWER, a faith based social justice organization. Nor would they comment on why, exactly, they had still not managed to pay workers the wages that had been promised to them in June of 2015. Or on the lack of benefits offered to employees.
No comment is the ultimate insult. It is as if management had decided to just put their fingers in their ears and sing, “Nyah Nyah Nyah, I can’t hear you.”
I’ve been writing about labor in America for 20 years, and I know how this will go. The public relations departments and CEOs know that if they just keep their mouths shut and wait it out, protests usually just fade away. The dissatisfaction will ossify into a residue of general bitterness and high turnover, but the corporation will live on. The workers simply don’t have the resources to keep making a fuss, and they need their jobs. There will always be a stack of applications at human resources.
The high turnover will result in new hires getting to hear more and more corporate doublespeak, which is used as a substitute for money and benefits. “Management” positions will be offered, and snapped up by eager employees who imagine a career position (only to realize that the term is an excuse not to pay overtime, and involves little actual authority). The new employees will be shown videos on sexual harassment and racial sensitivity in the workplace, but anyone who ever complains about such things will get fired for “job performance” issues. (If you wait long enough, an employee will miss a train and come in late, or get sick and miss work, and then it’s over. That’ll teach them to be a malcontent.) And let’s not even talk about urine testing for drugs, the program that ensures that no one who cleans airplane toilets ever has any fun on the weekends.
Positions as “Independent contractors” will be advertised, with stress on independence, a true American ideal. You’re independent now, like the Minutemen, like the soldiers at Valley Forge! Joke’s on you: It’s just a legal term meaning you don’t get any benefits. Oh, but they will promise benefits—in the distant future. Companies with high turnover love to make grandiose offers of future generosity, like stock options after six years, when their charts and graphs indicate that so many employees will have quit by then that these benefits will never have to be distributed. What person applying for a minimum wage job is thinking about stock options, or their children’s educational fund, to which the company will donate matching funds? They are trying to stay afloat, to keep their power on and food on the table. But that pamphlet makes everything sound so good, like the company is investing in their future. It’s just their present the company doesn’t care about.
Treating workers better actually improves a company’s performance. Costco, which provides 90 percent of its employees with health insurance and pays an average wage of $21 an hour, sports a turnover rate less than a quarter of its main competitor, Sam’s Club.
The problem here is definitely solvable—if corporations are willing. Both McDonald’s and Walmart, two companies with a reputation for underpaying and abusing their employees, decided to offer their workers a livable minimum wage. They did so only after years of bad press and employee protests. There is still an attitude of palpable reluctance, and these raises come only a brief time ahead of actual legislation which would force their hand, giving them bragging rights to crow about how they don’t need government to tell them to be decent human beings.
What is needed in place of this is a realization that treating workers better actually improves the company’s performance. Costco, which provides 90 percent of its employees with health insurance and pays an average wage of $21 an hour, sports a turnover rate less than a quarter of its main competitor, Sam’s Club. Low turnover is a key benefit in retail because it gives the company more knowledgeable staff, which improves customer service and increases sales. When Walmart did finally raise wages for its workers, it too reported increased sales, because the employees spent much of the extra money at…Wal-mart.
In fact, treating workers better is seen by some companies as not just decent, but as an actual business policy, called the “good jobs strategy.” Essentially: When labor is treated not just as an expense, but as an integral part of the whole business, everybody benefits. Southwest Airlines, In-and-Out Burger and The Container Store are just a few of the companies that have seen financial growth as a result of this improved employee treatment.
Hopefully the contractors at the Philadelphia Airport can bring themselves to respond to their employees, and to address their issues, without years of public shaming and aggressive strikes. That would give this city an airport staff that really felt good about their jobs. And that would be real leadership and teamwork that could make the city proud.
Iain Levison is the author of A Working Stiff’s Manifesto: A Memoir of Thirty Jobs I Quit, Nine That Fired Me, and Three I Can’t Remember and the novels How To Rob An Armored Car and Since The Layoffs.
Header Photo: Flickr/Fibonacci Blue