Workers who fix jams in the Portland airport’s baggage conveyor system voted 15-6 on April 2 to join the Machinists union. But their employer — ABM Onsite Services — is refusing to meet to negotiate a contract for the 25-worker group.
Instead, the company is employing a DC law firm to challenge their right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. ABM says the workers fall under the Railway Labor Act. That law makes it much more difficult to win a union campaign. The National Labor Relations Board has already rejected ABM’s argument, and ABM is very likely to lose in the court of appeals, says Machinists associate general counsel David Neigus. But it could take a year and a half to get a decision.
“I’m astonished at the amount of money a company is willing to spend to fight the union,” ABM dispatcher Mike McGuire told the Labor Press. McGuire works in a control room watching a bank of computer displays, dispatching workers called “jammers” whenever he detects a problem, like a piece of luggage getting stuck somewhere on the several-mile-long conveyor belt system — something that can happen hundreds of times a day.
McGuire and coworkers say they were driven to unionize by a difficult manager, who has since been fired. But they also want better wages, more affordable health insurance, greater stability and job security, improved safety, and an end to constant policy changes over which they have no say. Wages for jammers and dispatchers start at $12 an hour, and don’t go much higher. Union steward Aaron Dexter (the son of an IBEW Local 48 member), makes under $14 after five years as a jammer. Meanwhile, employer-provided health insurance costs upwards of $300 a month. And workers say too many injuries are occurring — particularly when they’re made to push six-feet-high stacks of tubs that weigh hundreds of pounds.
On Aug. 6, McGuire and several other ABM workers, joined by union reps, held the closest thing they can to a picket in two of the airport’s “Free Speech Zones.” The picketers’ message: ABM is committing unfair labor practices and denying workers’ rights. [Airport free speech, per Port of Portland policy, means applying for a permit at least three days in advance for permission to stand in a roped-off area, with no more than 10 people, no signs larger than 22” x 28,” and no chanting, dancing, tables or gathering of signatures.]
Neigus, the Machinists attorney, says the Port of Portland could use its influence to get ABM to quit stalling, because it’s a party to the ABM contract. The Port built the baggage conveyor system but turned over its management to a consortium of airlines, which then contracted the work to ABM.
“The employees went through an election,” Neigus said. “They want representation. ABM needs to bargain with them and follow the law.”