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Chicago: Concession Workers At Chicago's Airports Want To Keep Jobs, Earn A Living Wage
Progress Illinois
Micah Maidenberg

February 9, 2011
View the Original Article

As the City of Chicago prepares to let out a wave of contracts for food and retail shops at O'Hare and Midway airports, new legislation seeks to ensure that concession workers at both facilities -- the folks who pour the coffee, ring up book sales, fry hamburgers, and the like -- are not unceremoniously dumped as the process moves forward.

The "Stable Jobs Stable Airports Ordinance" (PDF), in fact, would remake labor relations for concession employees should it it make it through the council thicket and find the signature of the current or next mayor of Chicago. It also stands out as one of the most significant expansions of the Chicago's living wage rules since those stipulations were added to city code in the late 1990s.

The new bill does three things. First, it would require incoming airport concessionaires to retain the employees of the contractors they replace for at least 90 days. With contractor turnover very possible, UNITE HERE Local 1 estimates that up to 1,500 employees could lose their jobs; Local 1 represents around 1,100 concession workers at both facilities.

Second, a provision in the legislation provides that concessionaires account for collective bargaining agreements that concession workers have engaged in with employers or may in the future. Those proposing an outlet at the airports must show in their pitch to the city "that it is signatory to an enforceable agreement with each labor organization that represents or seeks to represent concession employees at O’Hare International Airport or Midway International Airport" this "labor peace" section reads. This language will keep workers from striking, picketing, and otherwise disrupting operations at two of the country's busiest airports, organizers say.

Finally, as noted, the bill extends Chicago's living wage standards to all concessionaires at Midway and O'Hare. That would give employees earning the minimum wage or just above it a boost to $11.03 per hour. At a press conference this morning Hudson News employee and Local 1 member Jeff Grays said he only earned $8.50 per hour. A living wage would help him raise his family, he said.

O'Hare and Midway concessions are lucrative, as anyone who has purchased a meal or a magazine while waiting for a flight out of Chicago knows well. In a request-for-proposals (PDF) for 22 specialty retail and services concessions at O'Hare, for example, the Department of Aviation reports that total sales for the 63 food, specialty concessions, news and gift stores, and duty free shops in the airport's terminal one totaled $82.8 million in 2009. O'Hare has three terminals, of course, with 160 outlets in all, this RFP says. A "concession open house" for food and beverage slots at O'Hare and Midway, scheduled for tomorrow, will kick off a different bidding process.

Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd Ward), one of the chief sponsors of the new ordinance, pointed out this morning that the concessions operators have a "captive audience" as fliers wait to board and often get multi-year contracts to run their outlets. Such business conditions mean concessionaires should be able to pay its employees a living wage, even if that means a price increase for some items, Munoz insisted. "What we're saying is share the wealth," he said.

At least 29 City Council members have signed onto the bill, according to Bhav Tibrewal, a spokesman for UNITE-HERE. Among those who showed support for the legislation today at a pre-council press conference were Alds. Pope, Jackson, Ervin, Reboyas, Moreno, Lyle, Foulkes, and Rice, as well as Munoz.

But Chicago has never had an easy living wage fight. The initial base living wage language for city contractors passed in 1998 only after a long struggle (and aldermen gave themselves a $10,000 pay raise during the same council meeting, an archived Tribune article noted). In September 2006, the outgoing mayor, Richard Daley, vetoed a living wage bill targeted at big box stores, angering organized labor and setting the stage for the 2007 aldermanic elections.

Henry Tamarin, the president of Local 1, pointed out this morning that the airport ordinance now on the table will affect Chicago residents first and foremost. Eighty-three percent of concession workers at O'Hare and Midway who are members of the union, he said, live in the city.