Why Sea-Tac Airport Workers Can't Join a Union for Better Pay

Oct 7, 2013

Socrates Bravo often works 15-hour days, and he'd like a raise.

But as a baggage handler at Sea-Tac International Airport, he doesn’t have many options. Traditionally, when workers want better wages, they join a union. So why don’t airport workers like Bravo just do that?

The reason: They’re stuck in a legal limbo under federal labor law. And that’s why they’ve turned to the ballot box instead.

In November, voters in the small city of SeaTac will decide whether to set one of the highest minimum wages in the country. The controversial Proposition 1 would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for some workers, including ground crew at Sea-Tac Airport.

One Worker's 15-Hour Workdays

It’s 5:45 a.m., just before dawn. Bravo, 24, is in his apartment in SeaTac, getting ready to go to work.

If you fly on Alaska Airlines, Bravo may be that guy lifting your suitcase off the plane. He doesn’t work for Alaska directly; he works for a subcontractor called Menzies Aviation. He gets $11.25 per hour at the job he’s had for two years. So to get by, he works a lot of overtime. On this day, he’s working 15 hours—until 10:30 p.m.

Bravo’s bare-bones apartment, which he shares with another guy, costs him $400 a month. On his wall is a poster of Che Guevara. But before you start thinking he’s some stereotypical class warrior, you should know he’s…more complicated. He’s earning his bachelor’s degree, and wants to become a DEA agent. He drives a used Mercedes. He’s also a dad. Bravo’s 11-month-old daughter lives with her mom, but he pays for a lot of the things she needs.

Heading out to catch the bus, Bravo scoops up some change to buy snacks at the airport.

Bravo would like a raise. He’d like to not have to work so many hours. So why not just join a union and bargain for that?

“Well, it would be nice if we were able to join a union, but since the circumstances are the way they are, it’s kind of hard to join one,” he says.

To understand why it’s hard, you have to stick with me for a teeny little lesson about U.S. labor law (I promise—tiny). But this is important for all of us, because it shows how our labor laws written almost a century ago are letting people slip through the cracks.

U.S. Labor Law 101 in 30 Seconds

It’s the year 1926. Marilyn Monroe is born. Winnie the Pooh is published. And in the U.S., the Railway Labor Act becomes law. For a quick tutorial, I turned to Orrin Baird, a lawyer with the Service Employees International Union.

“The statute was actually written because of concern about strikes and interruption of transportation,” he says.

The Railway Labor Act is even older than the National Labor Relations Act. That’s the law that covers, say, Boeing machinists or a GM factory worker. But a whole different set of rules applies to railroad workers, and those were later extended to airline workers. They have a higher bar for unionization; they have to organize across the country, not just in one city. Baird says that makes sense for pilots or flight attendants, but less sense for subcontractors like Bravo.

“The flight attendants fly in between Seattle and Houston. Some are based in Houston, and some are based in Seattle. And they have the same basic wages and working conditions,” Baird said. “These contractors—it varies from airport to airport and from airline to airline.”

Baird says baggage handlers like Bravo don’t ever see their counterparts in other cities.

“Basically it’s almost impossible for these workers to organize a union, because they have no idea where the other workers are,” he said.

So now, there’s a legal tussle going on between the SEIU and Menzies over which law should apply to these workers. I wanted to talk with Menzies about this, so I emailed the company’s top executives in the U.K. asking for an interview. They declined, but Menzies Vice President Philip Harnden wrote that they don’t believe the workers are in a legal gray area, and that Menzies workers fall under the Railway Labor Act.

Here’s one more nugget to chew on . Until 2005, when Alaska Airlines outsourced baggage handling, the workers were unionized and made more money. But eight years later, they haven’t been able to organize again, even though many, including Bravo,  have signed cards saying they want to join the SEIU.

That means whether workers like Bravo get a raise depends on people like Evelyn Kittredge, a SeaTac voter.

In the Hands of the Voter

I caught Kittredge outside a Safeway near Sea-Tac Airport. She’s torn. On the one hand, she thinks there wouldn’t be enough work because everyone would want to move to SeaTac. On the other hand, her own daughter worked a minimum wage job for a very long time.

“It was hard to see her struggle,” she said.

Washington state already has the highest minimum wage in the country: $9.19 per hour. But initiative supporters say that still leaves workers in poverty.

At Sea-Tac Airport, it’s 10:30 p.m. and weary travelers are picking up their suitcases. Bravo is weary, too. He’s just getting off work after a long day. What does he do after a 15-hour day of work?

“So right now, I was thinking of going to Safeway, buy some hamburger meat and make some spaghetti,” he said.

Then he’ll go to bed and get up at 5 a.m. for another 15-hour work day. Bravo says if he had a raise, he could spend more time with his daughter. But opponents argue companies will have to cut jobs if their labor costs go up. To Bravo, it’s about fairness. Big companies like Menzies and Alaska Airlines make millions of dollars.

“It’s absurd how people who make minimum wage aren’t able to get at least a little bit of that pie,” he said.

Now something that could have maybe been hashed out at the bargaining table between a union and the employer is up for SeaTac voters to decide. It’s in their hands whether Bravo gets a raise.