Behind airport lease agreement was fight for living wages

A coalition of advocacy and labor group members enter to meet in front of City Council to apply the city's "living wage" standard to about 1,500 low-wage subcontractor workers at the Philadelphia International Airport under a lease agreement between the Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter administration and airlines serving Philadelphia at City Hall on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )

A City Council Committee approved Tuesday a two-year lease agreement extension between the city and its airlines at the Philadelphia International Airport despite intense opposition from community groups and unions calling for better wages and working conditions for airport workers.

Members of SEIU Local 32BJ and the group known as POWER, an interfaith organization filled Council chambers asking the Committee to include living wage, first source hiring and "labor harmony" provisions in the lease agreement.

Instead, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who sponsored the bill on behalf of the Nutter administration amended the proposal to include a "labor harmony" provision in which the airline contractor is "urged" to include with a request for proposals.

But for Onetha McKnight, a wheelchair attendant at the airport, that minor change to the bill did not go far enough.

"I feel disappointed because I know City Council could have granted us what we wanted which is living wages," McKnight said. McKnight told the Council Committee she started working at the airport six years ago at $7 an hour and has not received a raise since. "It's unfair that airport workers receive poverty wages and no benefits."

Johnson said he plans to revisit the issue.

"I think we need to do more. As we move forward we're going to make sure the issue of fair wages is put on the table regarding subcontractors out at the airport. Today was a start," Johnson said. "They have to come back in front of us in two years for the ten-year agreement."

Mark Gale, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Airport urged Council to approve the extension before the end of its session which concludes June 20, otherwise it could impact the operation of the airport, future capital projects and federal funding.

Council could give the bill final approval as early as June 13.