Sea-Tac airport workers authorize a strike

THE VAST majority of workers for Aircraft Service International Group (ASIG) at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport voted on October 3 to authorize a strike over the suspension of a coworker.

Alex Popescu was indefinitely suspended on September 12 for speaking out against safety violations and organizing his coworkers. After repeated complaints to management went ignored, Popescu testified at the Port of Seattle in April, where he displayed pictures of faulty equipment that affect workers' safety. In September, he also reported broken equipment on a truck that he was supposed to drive.

Workers say that these actions were what led to Popescu's suspension by ASIG management. A statement from the workers reads in part:

This is to inform you that ASIG workers have voted, by an overwhelming majority, to authorize a strike to demand that you return Alex Popescu to work, to protest retaliation and intimidation by ASIG, and to protest unsafe working conditions...

Through Working Washington, we are making our voices heard to address important safety concerns about ASIG. We have told you we are united with Alex...We are also united with Alex and Working Washington in demanding safe equipment, a safe workplace and the right to organize together to address our concerns, without retaliation or intimidation by ASIG and its representatives

No strike has yet been called, but one could be imminent. The potential walkout is related to an ongoing campaign for better wages and conditions focusing on Alaska Airlines, the largest airline at the airport. Many of the workers who keep Alaska Air going are formally employed by subcontractors such as ASIG.

The campaign has been supported by several unions, including Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE, as well as community groups such as Working Washington and Puget Sound Sage.

When workers and supporters confronted the board of directors and management of Alaska Air on May 21 about low pay, safety issues and poor working conditions for employees of Alaska subcontractors, CEO Bradley Tilden claimed ignorance. He promised to look into it, but little has been done since, in spite of another demonstration in September.

The airport employs over 4,000 workers in the subcontracted jobs, including fuelers, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners, janitors and food service workers. Workers say that wages and working conditions at Sea-Tac Airport are worse than they are at some other Alaska Air hubs. In Seattle, workers often start at $9.04 (the Washington state minimum wage) to $9.25 per hour, while in Los Angeles they earn over $10 with benefits and over $14 without benefits.

This strike authorization is significant in several respects. A strike would immediately impact airport operations and further the efforts of the other airport workers to organize. It could also have a ripple effect on the thousands of other low-income workers across the region.

It is a sign of the determination and solidarity of the workers that the spark for the strike call was not just wages and speed-ups, but the right to organize and the defense of a co-worker who was unjustly suspended. Even in unionized workplaces in the U.S., it is rare to have strikes over disciplinary actions against fellow workers.

The strike authorization shows the effect of the ongoing campaign at Sea-Tac and the growing frustration that non-union, as well as unionized, workers are feeling over declining real wages and benefits and attacks on working conditions and health and safety.

As the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike and the walkout by subcontracted workers at Wal-Mart distribution centers show, the bosses are no longer having everything go their own way.