Union Eyes Skycaps of Aviation Safeguards

At the Southwest Airlines ticket counter at Oakland International Airport on Friday, it was business as usual, except for a small delegation of chanting, purple-shirted labor activists and contracted service workers demanding to speak with someone -- anyone -- in airline management.

One Southwest manager promptly scurried away from the Terminal 2 ticketing area toward baggage claim after declining to represent his corporation in an impromptu labor parley.

"Shall we follow him?" asked Kate StormoGipson, airport organizer for the Service Employees International Union Local 1877, egging on the already energized purple-shirts and more hesitant skycaps, wheelchair pushers and ticket checkers. "Let's go!"

With the chase joined, the blue-shirted manager made it halfway to baggage claim before he was overtaken. He turned around and told the crowd he could not help them, and security would be along to escort them out.

The event was one of many the union is planning in a new effort to organize service workers at all California airports.

"Our local is focusing on California, because we think California leads the nation on so many levels," said Brian Rudiger, chief of the local's Airport Division. "The national union is looking at ways that we can raise standards throughout the aviation industry."

One weapon in the union's arsenal is concern about security,which the union says is weakened by a demoralized, low-paid service staff with a high turnover rate.

As the workers and activists confronted Southwest and airport management Friday, they chanted, "Better lives! Safer skies!"

After a tense confrontation with the airport's general manager, Bill Wade, the group agreed to leave the terminal, celebrating the attention from airport and airline management.

"We made them nervous; they're still watching us," declared StormoGipson as the group gathered on the sidewalk outside while Wade, a police officer and several others stood a few yards away.

Airport and contractor management both dispute that hiring nonunion contractors has any impact on security.

"People want to link us with security," said Earl Hartfield, Northern California general manager for Aviation Safeguards, which is the union's primary target.

"But we're a customer service company" that employs skycaps, wheelchair pushers and documentation checkers, "and they have nothing to do with security at the airport."

Airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said service workers who are permitted regular access to secure areas are "thoroughly screened through background checks and fingerprinting" and do not compromise security.

A spokeswoman for Southwest, Marilee McInnis, said the airline had no immediate comment about the labor dispute.

Workers for Aviation Safeguards, which has airport service contracts across the nation, complain that since Southwest awarded the company its Oakland service contract, their conditions have deteriorated.

Health care, they say, is so minimal that they believe it is merely a way to qualify for lower wages under the living wage ordinance enforced by the Port of Oakland, which runs the airport.

Don Robertson had spent his two years working at the airport pushing wheelchairs. But when Aviation Safeguards took over, he said, "I do wheelchairs, baggage claim and bag running, and they change it anytime they feel like it."

When he fell ill recently and sought out a doctor under the company's health plan, he was told he could only see a doctor on one of three days of the week and had to pay a $25 co-pay.

"We just want a secure job where we're treated with dignity and respect," said Robertson, 51. "They have taken everything good out of this job."

He noted that a co-worker who checks tickets and identification of people entering security no longer was allowed to sit on a stool during slack times or drink water on the job.

Hartfield acknowledged that stools were taken from documentation checkers and that Aviation Safeguards had imposed a water ban.

As for the medical coverage, Hartfield said "that's a corporate decision," and that as a military retiree, he didn't need the company health plan and doesn't know "what it does or it doesn't do."

Sylvia Ruiz, an organizer with the SEIU local, said the union hopes to engage Southwest "to help them make better choices" when they hire contractors. Of immediate concern, she said, is that the company not hire Aviation Safeguards when it resumes service at San Francisco International Airport.

Both companies that provide services at Oakland's two terminals, Aviation Safeguards in Terminal 2 and DAL Global Services in Terminal 1, are in compliance with the Port of Oakland's living wage ordinance, paying a minimum of $10.07 per hour for employees with benefits, said Barnes, the airport spokeswoman.

Contact Erik N. Nelson at. Read his Capricious Commuter blog at InsideBayArea.com.