Hordes of angry airport workers gathered on a hill near the 94th Street bridge that extends into LaGuardia Airport. Their requests were simple: fair wages for fair work, paid sick leave and paid holidays.
Not so coincidently, the rally was held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, meant to honor the civil rights activist who spent his last days fighting for better pay for sanitation workers.
“Dr. King died because he believed we should live in a country where people do not live with poverty wages,” Public Advocate Letitia James bellowed into the microphones. “No justice, no peace! Dr. King believed in righteousness and we urge the Port Authority to do what is right. No justice, no peace!”
More than 400 workers — mostly from LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark airports — banged on drums made from paint buckets chanting and whistling, holding signs that read “I am a man,” “I am a woman” in Spanish and English.
The workers are not hired by airlines or the airport, but rather earn poverty wages as low as $6.50 an hour. They asked the companies and the Port Authority to make the 2014 Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday for contracted passenger service workers but when the airlines refused, they decided to protest.
“We are fighting for our very lives out here,” said Lenora McKeever, an ID checker at LaGuardia. “I spend so much time in housing court, trying to keep from being evicted. It’s a struggle just to keep a roof over my head.”
The protests were mostly peaceful but when the sea of people marched across the bridge, the police had to get involved.
Thirty-two federal, state and city elected leaders, clergy and airport workers were arrested for blocking the bridge to the airport. Council members Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn, Queens), Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), Ruben Wills (D- Jamaica) and others were carried away in zip-ties.
“Without these workers, we don’t welcome the 50 million-plus people into New York every year through these gateways to the city, these great economic engines,” Wills said after his brief stint in custody. “In terms of the war on poverty, which I think [Martin Luther King Jr.] started, we’ve dropped the ball. A lot of people embrace his memory, but I think this was remembering him in a way he would have liked to be honored.”
The Port Authority did not immediately answer requests to comment but James was emphatic about making the agency answer to the thousands of workers it has cleaning planes, maintaining wheelchairs and checking IDs.
“We demand justice and dignity for airport workers as we celebrate the dream of Dr. King because Dr. King’s dream unfortunately has become a nightmare for too many airport workers,” she said. “We urge Port Authority to do the right thing or there will be consequences because elections have consequences. As a result of the election in the City of New York, we tell Port Authority and all individuals who pay workers poverty wages to far too many workers in this city that the new day has come.”