Philadelphia Joins Roster Of Cities Tackling Low Wages At Airports

May 20--Nate Smith, 22, a baggage handler at Philadelphia International Airport and father of a 2-year-old girl, says he experiences pretty much all of the downsides of work -- the constant aches and back pain from lugging more than 1,000 heavy bags every day.

But earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25, the Southwest Philadelphia resident says he is not enjoying the full benefits of his labors. Smith said that he, his fiancee and his daughter are living with his grandmother to make ends meet, and he's frustrated when he can't buy his little girl a toy because he can barely pay the monthly bills.

Smith said he's looking forward to making enough money that he "will be able to take care of my family in that way that I want to, that I can be the provider I want to, when I don't have to be stressing out about what to do next, as far as living off $7.25 an hour."

Now it looks as if Smith's dream will become a reality. Last week, Mayor Nutter signed an executive order requiring that employees of subcontractors on city contracts -- such as Smith and about 2,000 others who work at the airport -- must be paid at least the city's so-called living wage of $10.88 an hour, a floor that will rise to $12 in January.

Today, city voters are widely expected to put an exclamation point on Nutter's move by approving a ballot measure -- Question No. 1 -- that would establish the living wage for city subcontractors as city law, making it difficult for one of Nutter's successors in City Hall to easily reverse the pay gains.

A "yes" vote would put Philadelphia in the mix of major American cities that are looking for creative ways to boost living standards for low-wage workers, at a time when the U.S. Congress and many statehouses -- including GOP-controlled Harrisburg -- are balking at a higher minimum wage for all workers. Opponents claim that raising wages would increase unemployment as business owners look to protect their bottom line.

To the next level

But with employees of fast-food restaurants and big-box retailers like Walmart increasingly staging protests and one-day strikes for a wage hike, some cities are taking it to the next level -- most notably Seattle, where the mayor is working to codify a recent deal to gradually increase minimum pay for all workers to $15 an hour. In Philadelphia, City Hall lacks the statutory power to raise pay for private-industry workers.

What's stunning, to some degree, is the sudden lack of organized resistance, at least to modest moves like Philadelphia's ballot measures.

Indeed, knowledgeable sources tell the Daily News that the largest employer at the Philadelphia airport, the newly merged US Airways and American, was quietly making plans to tell its subcontractors to pay $10.88 an hour even before it knew that Nutter would sign his executive order. The airlines and their subcontractors recently saw the pay minimum rise to $10.10 at the three New York-area airports. The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce also is not opposing the $10.88 ballot question.

Political observers wonder whether Nutter -- who initially had seemed resistant to the subcontractor pay hike after his administration's Law Department had ruled that the $10.88 wage didn't apply to the subs -- is reacting to rapidly shifting political currents. Nationally, Democrats facing an uphill battle in November's midterm vote have glommed onto the popularity of a higher minimum wage to differentiate their party from pro-business Republicans.

"Democrats are grasping for issues, and I think this is an issue they think they can do something with," said Larry Ceisler, the Philadelphia-based political strategist. But he noted that even GOPers like Mitt Romney are making statements -- albeit vague ones -- in favor of raising pay minimums. "Republicans are trying to show they are not so hard-edged."

Taking no chances

Despite polls showing that 85 percent of Democrats -- the dominant party in Philadelphia -- support raising the minimum wage, and despite Nutter's recent move, supporters of Question No. 1, pushed by City Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., are not taking any chances. The biggest backer, the SEIU 32BJ labor union, has been running a door-to-door get-out-the-vote operation for several weeks.

"An executive order exists as long as that mayor" is in office, noted Gabe Morgan, vice president and Pennsylvania state director of the SEIU local. He said a positive vote today would make the change permanent and also add clarity for employers to know exactly who is covered by the city's living-wage law.

But Morgan and other activists also acknowledge that a big vote in Philadelphia on the wage issue would be another burst of momentum for a wider range of progressive causes, most around the topic of income inequality. For example, many of those behind Question No. 1 are pushing for a measure on the November ballot that would call for dissolving the School Reform Commission and return Philadelphia schools to local control, and also would like to take another shot at passing mandatory worker sick leave in Philadelphia.

A single mom

Nikisha Watson, 27, a single mother of one who now makes $8.50 an hour and gets just 30 hours a week cleaning the airport terminals in the early evenings for a subcontractor, is among airport workers pushing the vote -- not so much for the big picture as simply to put food on the table.

Watson, who lives in West Philadelphia, said that her small weekly check covers not just her and her 5-year-old daughter, but also her ailing mom and several other family members under her roof. She said an extra $2.38 an hour would really help.

"To me, personally, it would make a big difference -- paying bills and making ends meet without having to ask family members for money, to try to make that little check stretch," Watson said.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

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