We came together again to make working conditions at Sea-Tac Airport better

by Eleine Senebeto

In 2013, I worked at Sea-Tac airport in a job that paid poverty wages. I pushed wheelchairs, helping people navigate the airport. My wage was $9 an hour. To make ends meet, I worked 14-hour shifts, often pushing two wheelchairs at a time.

When we first started organizing for Proposition 1, I thought it was impossible. It was the first $15 minimum wage in the nation, and would apply to workers at the airport and nearby hotels and restaurants in SeaTac. I was afraid my company would go bankrupt. I thought, these companies rely on exploiting workers with limited English, so why would they start paying us more?

But they did start paying us more. We won the $15, and more than that—we won $15 and a union. The company I work for was even forced to pay me backpay for the period of time when they initially refused to comply with Proposition 1. In the five years since Prop 1, everything has changed at Sea-Tac. What were once stressful jobs with terrible pay and super high turnover are now careers.

This summer, our union came together to negotiate a new master contract that unites 800 passenger service workers under one collective bargaining agreement. Wheelchair agents, cabin cleaners, ramp agents, baggage handlers, and more—the people who help passengers in countless unseen ways. We fought for our wages under Proposition 1, and this summer, we united to fight for better working conditions. And we won.

Our new contract gets us five extra days of paid time off. And now employers have to pay for all of our required safety equipment. We cannot be forced to push more than one wheelchair at a time. And we negotiated limits on how supervisors can use write-ups to threaten our jobs. Taken together, these things will make our jobs more stable. Which makes our lives more stable.

The best thing we won in this new contract is a policy for extended leave. Many passenger service workers in the airport come from far away countries, and it takes a long time for us to go back home. Now, my coworkers and I can schedule family visits during the slow season. We can take up to 90 days off, unpaid, and return to our jobs at the same level of pay and seniority. This is a huge win for immigrant workers and our families.

The airport used to be a place where everyone worked three jobs to make ends meet. Now, most of us work one. Or maybe 1.5. There’s still work to do. But the important thing to remember is that it seemed impossible, just five years ago, that we would ever make $15 an hour. And we were the ones who did it. Our companies didn’t suddenly decide to give us raises, the government did not suddenly decide to help us out—it was us, knocking on doors, talking to co-workers, connecting to our communities and reaching out to strangers. It was everybody coming together—the whole airport. We made the impossible possible. And we can do it again. What’s next?

Eleine Senebeto is a Sea-Tac Passenger Services Worker and SEIU6 Executive Board Member

Featured Photo: Eleine Senebeto