After years of protests about working conditions and low wages, nonunion Philadelphia airport workers vote to join a union

In 2013, airport workers and members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) marched from Philadelphia International Airport’s Terminal F to Terminal B, demanding that US Airways Group require subcontractors to pay better wages and benefits.

Baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, sky caps, and other passenger service workers employed by airline contractors at Philadelphia International Airport have voted overwhelmingly to join Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ.

The vote, which was held Tuesday night, was 406-58 in favor of joining the nation's largest property-service workers union.

It took four years and numerous protests for the SEIU and the workers, who currently number 1,400 and work for subcontractors hired by various airlines, to get the secret-ballot National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.

Beginning July 1, 2015, the workers won an agreement with the city to be paid $12 an hour, in keeping with a "living wage" standard approved by Philadelphia voters in May 2014. Before that, they earned as little as $7.75 an hour plus tips.

The airlines at Philadelphia International Airport, led by American Airlines, agreed to lease terms in June 2015 that supported workers' rights to join labor unions and that ensured the wage standard would be enforced with airline subconstractors.

Under a new five- to seven-year lease with the city, the 22 airlines serving Philadelphia airport agreed to send letters to their contractors, pledging not to terminate agreements with contractors if their employees elected to organize.

In response to the workers' vote this week, American Airlines said it "has consistently supported the rights of its airport service providers and their employees to decide on union representation in the manner prescribed by federal law."

The SEIU plans to begin collective bargaining with airline contractors PrimeFlight and Prospect to get a contract for the workers, SEIU spokeswoman Julie Blust said.

Mayor Kenney, who has supported the airport workers cause, called the victory "a proud moment for our city.

"This is the city's airport, and today the men and women who work hard everyday to keep it running are one step closer to having the good jobs they deserve," Kenney said. "I commend these brave airport workers for sticking with their fight no matter how hard it got."

Kenney is to join the workers, other elected officials, and clergy at a celebratory rally at 3:30 p.m. Thursday outside the airport Terminals B and C.

Gabe Morgan, vice president of SEIU 32BJ, said, "In a city where poverty is deep and widespread, they voted to turn more than 1,000 poverty jobs into good jobs.

"Everyone talks about how to create good jobs," Morgan said. "These brave men and women at the airport just went out and did it. Our local economy and communities will be stronger because of the actions of these airport workers."

Many PHL workers including maintenance, janitors, and employees who work directly for airlines belong to labor unions.