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Working conditions and remuneration continue to spur labour protest in the air cargo sector as well as in the aviation industry overall.
Yesterday, warehouse staff from Swissport’s cargo facility at Chicago O’Hare drew attention to their grievances with a public formal complaint at a press conference.
Flanked by two city aldermen and the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, which represents 50,000 workers in the midwestern US, nearly 100 employees of Swissport Cargo yesterday staged an event in front of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Chicago to file official complaints about working conditions.
The grievances ranged from run-down equipment to extreme heat, and an SEIU spokesperson highlighted two major concerns on safety – faulty vehicles and sanitary conditions.
“Many of these workers are operating vehicles that don’t have a seatbelt, or they have broken mirrors which makes it difficult to see. Additionally, their horns don’t work, so they are forced to yell on the tarmac, already a loud environment,” she added.
The sanitary concerns are mostly about bathrooms, with lack of soap and warm water, which increase worries about catching Covid.
Todd Lindamood, Swissport’s SVP human resources, North America, said: “The health and safety of all our employees is the highest priority for Swissport, and our best-in-class record demonstrates this. Industry data over several years has shown that Swissport has a much lower rate of lost-time injuries – approximately one-third lower than competitors.
“Swissport has an industry-leading safety management system with demonstrated high standards of safety in our operations, which utilise technologies such as an aircraft distance protection system. We also strongly encourage and support reporting of possible safety issues, regardless of whether those concerns ultimately prove to have no foundation,” he added.
According to the SEIU spokesperson, some of the concerns raised by workers would be easy to fix.
“They can easily remedy these issues – get antibacterial soap in the bathrooms and make sure they are cleaned, and ensure the warehouses have heat in the winter and A/C in the summer,” she said.
This year has witnessed a spate of protest action by workers in the warehousing, fulfilment, air cargo and general aviation sectors. For the most part, these have targeted high stress levels, unsafe or unhealthy working conditions and remuneration.
Jobs in warehousing, transport and delivery services are considered ‘high hazard’ by state regulators, owing to elevated injury rates.
According to reports, risk of injury in this sector is higher yet for employees of Amazon, where the speed of processing shipments is dictated by robot capacity. One recent report stated that the rate for injuries at the e-commerce giant’s west coast hub airport at San Bernardino was significantly higher than the industry average, with 9.4 reported serious injuries per 100 workers.
High temperatures inside the facility during summer months have been another serious problem for Amazon employees at the California airport, which they highlighted with two walk-outs in recent months, the first in August in protest over pay and safety conditions, the second in October.
Workers demanded compensation be raised from $17 an hour to $22. Amazon increased the rate by $1 in September, which has been criticised as inadequate to compensate for the elevated cost of living.
Health concerns focused largely on hot working conditions. According to the protesters, temperatures at the airport reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) on 24 days in July and exceeded 100 Fahrenheit on 18 days in August.
These issues have sparked efforts across the Amazon network of employees to unionise – a drive the company has fought tooth and nail to stifle.
Workers and labour unions have accused Amazon of using intimidation and retaliation against employees that have been pushing for unionisation.
Last Friday, a judge in the Eastern District of New York City ordered Amazon to “cease and desist” from “discharging employees because they engaged in protected activity” and “interfering with, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed to them by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act”.
This could be a drag on Amazon’s desire to thwart an attempt of workers at its North American hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International airport. A group of workers there have started a push in that direction, calling for starting wages of $30 an hour and 180 hours of paid time-off, more flexible working conditions and union representation at disciplinary meetings. The $1.5bn hub, which became fully operational in September 2021, employs some 4,500 workers.
Meanwhile, Swissport has signalled willingness to accept a union at its O’Hare facility. According to Mr Lindamood, it has offered the SEIU a ‘labour peace agreement’ that would give the union unopposed access to organise the workforce at the airport.
“We fully support our employees’ right to choose union representation under applicable US labour law and believe in the process of secret ballot election to let employees make that choice for themselves,” he said.
In September, flight attendants from United Airlines and Southwest Airlines staged protests at airports across the US to draw attention to what they claimed was chaotic scheduling and insufficient staffing. The same month saw a strike by airport workers at San Francisco Airport.