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Chicago: Plan to require airport concessionaires pay living wage gains steam
Chicago Sun-Times
Fran Spielman

October 5, 2011
View the Original Article

O’Hare and Midway Airport retailers would be required to pay their 1,500 employees a “living wage” of $11.18-an-hour — even if it means raising the sky-high prices they charge their captive audience of air travelers — under a plan that’s gaining political steam.

During a raucous rally before Wednesday’s City Council meeting, 18 aldermen stood shoulder-to-shoulder with members of Unite Here Local 1 to support an ordinance timed to coincide with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s concession makeover at both airports.

It would close a legal loophole that has allowed airport concessionaires to avoid paying the “living wage” long applied to city contractors.

To prevent existing employees from losing their jobs during the makeover, the ordinance would require new concessionaires to retain existing employees for 90 days. If layoffs are necessary after that, it could only be done on the basis of seniority. Fired employees would be placed on a preferred hiring list.

Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino has long opposed mandating airport wages. But she might be forced to come around if aldermanic support keeps building.

Although a similar ordinance went nowhere in the City Council earlier this year, United Here and its allies are now just eight votes away from the 26 they would need to pass the ordinance over Emanuel’s objections.

“It’s got traction,” said a mayoral ally, who asked to remain anonymous.

During Wednesday’s rally, Midway Airport employee Jerry Ward said he’s struggling to support his family on the meager $10-an-hour, $19,000-a-year wage he’s currently being paid.

“There are sandwiches that are being made at the airports that cost more than the wage I make an hour. It’s very difficult to raise a family of three on this wage,” Ward said.

“My income is so low, I have to share an apartment with my mom. … City leaders have the power and the responsibility to do this for us ….We put you into office and it’s time for you to take a stand for us.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (29th) said $250 million in concession contracts are “about to change hands” and front-line workers who live and pay taxes in Chicago should not be “left out.” Ervin further noted that similar job and wage guarantees are already in place at other major airports — including at LAX in Los Angeles and at New York’s JFK.

Ervin acknowledged that, if the full City Council mandates airport concessionaires to pay higher wages, those same companies are likely to jack up the already high prices they charge consumers. But he said, “If they do raise their prices, we do feel it’s worth it ….We want safer streets, safer communities. We want people to have a living wage so they can take care of their families and not resort to other things.”

In 1998, the City Council voted to require city contractors to pay a living wage, a vote that provided political cover for aldermen who raised their own pay the same day.

Four years later, it happened again. Employees of city contractors got a 19 percent pay raise — and annual increases tied to the federal poverty rate — to set the stage for another aldermanic pay raise.

The Ervin ordinance is timed to coincide with a major overhaul of airport concessions that started with the international terminal contract awarded this summer to Westfield Concession Management and is continuing with virtually all O’Hare and Midway contracts being opened for competition for the first time in years.