Airlines threaten to sue over modest labor reforms at PDX

By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor

The Port of Portland has beefed up a soon-to-be voted on proposal to improve worker conditions at the Portland International Airport (PDX) — so much that a national airline group is threatening to sue.

UNITE HERE and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represent low-wage airport service workers, have been campaigning to get the Port of Portland Commission to pass pro-worker policies similar to those at several other West Coast airports. And as reported in the Feb. 20 issue of the Northwest Labor Press, the first draft of the management-written policy looked pretty unpromising, full of vague pledges and complicated, unenforceable employer mandates.

But a second draft, presented at the March 11 meeting of the Commission, added notable specifics: Going forward, new airport service and concession contracts would require employers to provide wages and benefits totaling at least $13 an hour. And when contracts change hands in the future, incoming companies with more than 50 PDX employees would have to hire the employees of the outgoing contractor. Such a “worker retention” policy would give airport workers greater job security. The Port would also maintain a list of laid-off airport service workers. Smaller contractors would have to consider hiring from the list before hiring outside workers.

The proposed policy would apply to food and retail outlets in the airport, and to “certain airline subcontracted service providers as determined by Port staff.”

AIRLINES TO PORT OF PORTLAND: If you try to raise wages for employees of our subcontractors, we’ll sue. “Should the Port proceed further with the Workplace Initiative, it will inevitably result in redundant and wasteful red-tape, bureaucratic interference in business relationships, jurisdictional disputes, and protracted litigation.”

That last part elicited a March 9 threat letter from Airlines For America (A4A), an industry trade association that represents the interests of its 11 member companies: Alaska, American, Atlas Air, Delta, Hawaiian, jetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways, FedEx and UPS.

A4A sent Rob DeLucia, its vice president for labor and employment, to make sure Port leaders got the message.

“We are here largely to avoid litigation with you,” DeLucia told commissioners at their March 11 meeting. “We have sued Los Angeles and Seattle in the federal courts over what they’ve done. We started to do so in Alabama, but the airport there pulled back from what they were considering.”

DeLucia also warned of unintended consequences: If costs go up, airlines might have to cut service to out-of-the-way areas of the state.

“Service providers are key to our operations,” DeLucia said.

DeLucia didn’t put it this way, but basically the issue is this: Airlines have eliminated unionized workers in the last 30 years, instead outsourcing everything they could to low-wage nonunion contractors: from baggage handling and cabin cleaning to jet fueling and customer service. If public bodies like port commissions try to raise wages or otherwise interfere with that profitable business model, they’ll see the airlines in court.

“We don’t want to be sued,” Commission president Jim Carter replied to DeLucia. “On the other hand, we don’t want to be cowed into not doing anything we think it’s appropriate to do.”

“It’s sort of what we’re used to hearing,” Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain, a member of the Port Board of Commissioners, told the Labor Press. “Pass paid sick leave; you’re going to get sued. Raise wages, and you’re going to get sued.”

Besides the legal threat from A4A, commissioners also heard push-back from a representative of the Airline Service Providers Association, from Capers Cafe co-owners Christian and Annette Joly, and from Edward Gerdes, general counsel for the Cafe Yumm chain of virtuous restaurants.

Cafe Yumm is a new kind of business, Gerdes told commissioners, legally committed to the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit. It already provides compensation at or above the Port’s proposed $13 an hour threshold, Gerdes said. And yet, Cafe Yumm would not have signed an airport concessions contract if the pro-worker policy had been in place, because of the “administrative cost overlay” of complying. Gerdes did not return a call from the Labor Press seeking more detail about that burden.

Commissioners are expected to vote on a final draft in April or May.

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