Sandra Smith works two jobs at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. For the last two years, she’s been a wheelchair attendant and an airplane cabin cleaner. But both jobs pay minimum wage or below, with no benefits.
Last summer, heart failure threw her into a week-long coma. But when she woke up, she had no time to rest. Her jobs don’t offer paid sick leave, so within a week she was back cleaning cabins and wheeling passengers around.
“You have bills, you have rent to pay,” said Smith, a 47-year-old immigrant from Guyana.
On Monday, she and about 40 other low-wage airport workers held a protest for a $15 minimum wage and benefits, as well as the right to unionize.
“It’s the same situation as Martin Luther King was fighting for,” she said.
Workers in eight other major cities — including Boston, Chicago and New York City — chose the symbolic day for a little civil disobedience in the name of employee rights. The Miami protest began in front of the headquarters of Eulen America, an international corporation near Miami International Airport that subcontracts the low-wage airport employees. Some of its top clients include American Airlines and Delta.
“If Martin Luther King Jr. was here with us today, he would be very, very proud of us,” Delores Green, a worker from JFK, told the crowd of protesters.
Smith spoke, along with representatives from the SEIU 32BJ union, State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez and political candidates.
“I want the heads of the company to hear us, listen to the workers’ plight and fix the situation,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, without workers they wouldn’t have those high profits.”
Helene O’Brien, a union representative, rallied the crowd before sending a delegation of protesters into Eulen America, 7200 NW 19th St., to deliver their demands.
“Instead of being economic anchors and raising standards for workers of color, airlines and their contractors are lowering the bar for everyone,” she said.
Afterward, the crowd briefly blocked the street leading into the business park. They sat on the road and chanted for justice.
Dr. Alina Valdes, a Democratic congressional candidate for District 25, told the crowd, “What you’re making now is not enough to pay the bills, let alone plan a future for your family.”
She told the crowd about her immigrant roots and her commitment to helping pass legislation to help the workers. “I’ll fight as long as there is a breath left in my body,” she said.
“You folks are not asking for a handout, you’re asking for a hand up, and I support that 100 percent,” she said.
Eulen America said in a statement that its employees “have repeatedly rejected this New York based Union and refused to join it. This is typical of SEIU Local 32BJ tactics being used in Dade and Broward Counties with other employees.
“The Union uses intimidation to try to force employers to recognize the Union even though the employees do not support the Union. Eulen America and its employees enjoy an excellent relationship where addressing employee needs is of paramount importance to the Company. Eulen America will not be swayed by the bullying tactics of this Union.”