Service Workers Hold Protest Rally at SFO

Jul. 1 — Airport service workers marched at San Francisco International Airport Monday, calling for better pay, benefits and training as a way to improve airline passenger customer service.

The rally came as the busy summer travel season shifts into gear at SFO and other airports around the Bay.

It also came on the heels of a report late last month by J.D. Power and Associates on airline passengers complaining about bad service because of carrier staff cutbacks.

More than 60 workers rallied at SFO, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, security officers, wheelchair assistance workers, skycaps, janitors and ramp service and cargo crews.

They represented about 1,000 workers at SFO as well as 400 airport service workers at Oakland International Airport and Mineta San Jose International Airport.

There are several thousand airport workers across the state, and many of them have recently held or are planning similar demonstrations.

The workers stopped short of calling for a strike, but did not rule it out.

"This is hard work, and the cost of living is very high here, and we need to support our families," said Antonio Balotro, an SFO baggage handler. Balotro said he's fighting for affordable health care, and wants a raise from his $11.88 per hour salary. Most service workers earn about $19,000 a year.

The workers are represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1877.

They are contract workers, employed by independent companies such as G2 Secure Staff, PrimeFlight and AirServ. Those companies are hired by airlines such as United, American and Cathay Pacific to do the work.

Ray Klinke, general manager of PrimeFlight, said he thinks his company pays a fair wage "for the skill set we're asking the workers to bring.

"The airlines are getting absolutely killed by the price of oil, and I don't think they're looking to pay more in wages," said Klinke.

Negotiations, which have been ongoing for months, will continue as the contracts of these workers expire over the next couple of months, union officials said.

At the rally, the workers carried luggage brandishing stickers with slogans such as "Better lives, safer skies."

Union officials said they don't want a strike. Rather, they want to get the message across to the airlines that raising the standards of workers will reduce turnover, and, therefore, improve customer satisfaction.

"The airlines need to address the core issues that are driving passenger dissatisfaction with service, but they're taking a hands-off approach," said Brian Rudiger, spokesman and organizer for the union.

Rudiger said the workers need better training. Some workers, for example, who are charged with looking for weapons and bombs on the aircraft have "not been properly trained," he said.

Sam Thanawalla, a global hospitality and travel expert at J.D. Power, said the group's recent report found passengers clamoring for better service.

"They say the attitude of the airline staff is suffering, and that affects the service they're providing," he said.