BWI workers rally for better pay, benefits and respect

Organized by the hospitality workers union Unite Here, about 75 workers march into the office of concessions managers AirMall USA.

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Airports concession workers demanding better pay and treatment jammed the offices of AirMall USA at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Photo by: Fern Shen

The people who staff the griddles, beer taps and cash registers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport rallied there yesterday, complaining of low wages, inadequate access to benefits and lack of job security.

Chanting “Yes we can!” and “We’ll be back!” they delivered a “Bill of Rights” to the airport offices of concessions manager AirMall USA.

“I’m just here because I think we need to stand up for our rights. I hope we come out of this with more job security,” said LaToya Meal, a server at DuClaw who was one of about 75 workers who joined the protest, organized by the union Unite Here.

“People with families depend on these jobs to get by,” said the 28-year-old Glen Burnie resident, who was carrying her two-year-old son and said she is his sole support.

With a majority of the 1,500 concessions jobs at the airport part-time, few qualify for health care, a situation workers said they don’t see changing anytime soon.

“There is no path to full-time work. It’s just, if they like you or not. There’s no system. And, really, there are very few of those jobs,” said Kevin Wheeler, 36, who works as a bartender at the Sam Adams pub and as a cashier at an Onsite News and Gifts concession.

Together the two part time jobs give Wheeler a 45-hour workweek, he said.

Ehrlich-Era Change in Management

In two weeks of organizing, Unite Here organizer Meghan Cohorst said, nearly 300 workers signed the Bill of Rights document, which asks AirMall to acknowledge four basic rights:

The right to respect and a workplace free from discrimination and harassment, the right to job security, the right to join a union in a neutral environment, and the right to work full-time for fair wages and benefits.

Mark Knight, president of AirMall, said the company would not respond because workers they “already have these things.”

“We believe in having well-compensated, well-treated employees and that’s the environment we think we created,” he said, speaking with The Brew by phone. Knight also noted, however, that employees should “address any pay or other complaints to the individual companies” they work for.

About 75 workers, including x and her two-year-old son, participated. (Photo by Fern Shen)

LaToya Meal (right) and her two-year-old son participated in the rally. (Photo by Fern Shen)

As concessions manager, AirMall does not directly employ the workers. Previously, airport concessions were managed by a single company, supervised by the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA).

But during the administration of then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2005, as workers were negotiating their first airport-wide union contract, the state contracted with the private for-profit company AirMall to take over concessions management.

Union: Workers’ Yearly Income is $15,912

The union contends that the short-term leases the company negotiates with food and retail chains results in worker displacement and lack of job security and that the company’s management fee, as a middleman, “creates downward economic pressure” and drives workers’ salaries down.

Cohorst said that AirMall, as manager, should ensure better pay and working conditions for concessions employees, and that the MAA, which signed a multi-year contract with AirMall, bears responsibility as well.

“Gov. O’Malley talks about how the airport is a great ‘job generator,’ but the reality for workers – many of whom live in Baltimore city and in some of the poorest areas in the region – is they don’t get to share in that,” she said.

BWI Concessions workers in Baltimore, by community statistical area. (Source: UniteHere)

BWI concessions workers in Baltimore, by community statistical area. (Source: Unite Here)

A report released by Unite Here concludes that BWI concessions workers’ median pay is $8.50 per hour and that annual income is $15,912.

The report, tilted “From the Counter to Community,” estimates that 38% of workers there have no healthcare coverage and that 40% of those employees who have health care receive it from the state-funded Medicaid program.

Knight called much of the data in the report “a fabrication.”

The president of AirMall said that full-time employees make $18.38-per-hour and, when counted together, full- and part-time workers make about $15-per-hour.

He acknowledged that there are more part-time than full-time concessions jobs at BWI, but could not provide a number.

Cohorst said Unite Here believes there are about 800 non-union concession jobs at BWI.

“This is Private Property!”

The scene inside AirMall’s office yesterday was intense.

Workers jammed a tiny waiting room chanting “No Justice, No Peace!” and staffers tried to close an inner door against them.

“I will call the police,” one man shouted. “This is private property!”

Outside in the terminal, Wheeler said that perceived “lack of respect” by managers, in part, fuels the workers’ anger. “‘You can take your butt back to Baltimore, back to the ghetto.’ I heard [a supervisor] say that to somebody,” he recalled. “I’ve seen sexual harassment.”

Workers organized by Unite Here presented a Bill of Rights to the company that manages airport concessions. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Workers organized by Unite Here presented a Bill of Rights to the company that manages airport concessions. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Another frequent complaint was the cost and difficulty of using public transportation to get to BWI.

Wheeler noted that it takes him about two hours to reach work, using a bus from Northeast Baltimore and then the light rail.

On Sundays, when light rail service stops at 8:40 p.m. and Wheeler gets done at midnight, his commute is even longer and involves two buses.

“These jobs pay so little you can’t afford to save up for a car,” said Wheeler, who estimates his monthly income at $800 to $900.

Patrice Thompson, 26, who works the grill at the airport McDonald’s, also has a nearly two-hour commute to get from her midtown Baltimore home to her $7.50-an-hour job.

“The other day I worked about two and a half hours, just a little longer than it took for me to get there – and they told me to go home,” she said.

When she asked why, she said they told her that “business was slow and labor was high.”

"The police have been called!" this man at the AirMall USA office told the protesters. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“The police have been called!” this man at the AirMall USA office told the protesters. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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  • davethesuave

    i hope they have a back-up plan;  because they’ll be out of work soon.
    i do sympathize with their lousy job conditions.  corporations are known to squeeze their labor force for all they can get out of them, and that’s despicable.  and that’s what humans do to one another.  welcome to the human race.
    on the other hand, maybe it’s time to seek employment elsewhere.  this ain’t AD 1880.  you’re not a slave unless you choose to be.  and in this country, for better, but mostly for worse, you tend to get stuck where you are because you don’t possess the skills to make more money.
    yeah, it’s a harsh truth, and it doesn’t excuse the above-mentioned behavior, but there it is.

  • Ed

    These jobs are not intending to be used to support families they are supposed to be used as a path to develop your skills to better yourself. Stop whining.

  • Flint Arthur


    But workers do depend on these jobs to support families.

    35 million Americans – 26 percent of our workforce – earn less than $10.55 an hour. The overwhelming majority of low-wage workers are adults, not teens, and they contribute a substantial portion of their households’ incomes. Three quarters of minimum wage earners are 20 or older.

    Sure, people can learn a trade or go to college if they can afford it (and tuition prices have soared). That doesn’t guarantee them a better job either. Lots of folks in the trade are unemployed as well as many recent college graduates. When folks do get a job, a lot of them are doing low wage service work.

    One way to improve jobs wages and benefits is through organizing a union. That’s how other “unskilled” jobs delivered better pay and benefits in the 20th century. 

    And the argument at the airport is that the service jobs there paid better, had benefits and had more hours when all the shops were under one company and the workers at that company were organized union. Now the union is fighting to make those jobs better, again.

    Just like the union fights to make hotel workers better and hotel workers with unions do much better than those with out. They do even better when the union has density in the local market.

  • ken1963

    thanks for using averages……numbers can be used to support either side of a discussion….what about tips?/ And if you chose to be employed at 2 part time jobs (much respect) why does that qualify you for benefits?? It would be great to ask these whiners what they would do if they owned the companies……

  • Flint Arthur


    I’m pretty sure that the worker stretching two part time jobs to 45 hours without benefits would rather have one full time job at 40 hours with benefits (and the possibility that any time over 40 is paid an overtime differential).  

    Tips vary a lot at the different shops at the airports.  Some jobs have tip, others do not.

    I think the workers owning the companies is a great idea.

  • Rocky_Ground

    Wow, what a warm set of comments. This is a pretty basic story: people trying to gain ground in their workplace. They deserve the right to unionize and advocate for themselves. If you’re not aware that there is a major problem in this country with low-paying jobs, you’re not paying attention.

    • davethesuave

      i was not trying to be cruel.  i was simply stating the fact that sometimes, as discomforting as it may be, you had better be prepared, even eager to move on to the next job, and while you’re at it, if you really desire to improve your life circumstances, then improve your mind, enrich whatever skills you may already possess, and learn new skills assuming your aptitude allows for this.  This country is chock full of folks who have been inculcated with the notion that the workplace Owes them a job, or a start, or a higher wage, and that’s bullshit.  
      I happen to be a white, lower-middle class guy, (now you may want to sit down for this next part), who has been handed basically nothing. On the contrary, I am self-employed, and I will not bid on any work that has the stamp of local or state government on it, because I do not qualify. I am not part of the coddled class, I am also not politically connected.  So I don’t bother spinning my wheels bidding work I am NOT going to be considered for.Oh, I know, I know, you may be thinking “he’s a white guy, he’s been handed things he doesn’t even realize”.  Right.  Well, there’s no arguing that then.To conclude, and to repeat, I have NO issue or problem with people organizing themselves with an eye toward bettering their lives, if you have no problem with the notion that a private business only owes you what you can get out of them.

  • Gerald Neily

    On the “difficulty of using public transportation”: The current light rail line is about as good as it gets. The Red Line which won’t be any better and in many respects will be a lot worse. The inherent limitations of light rail for these kinds of “reverse commutes” must be recognized. The Red Line has been absurdly oversold as a “jobs generator”. We can do much better by planning transit as a rational SYSTEM.

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