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Major airline CEOs ‘are to blame’ for worker shortages, SEIU president says

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) International President Mary Kay Henry joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss staffing shortages across the airline industry, potential strike action, and summer travel demand.

Video transcript


- As the summer vacation boom takes hold, airport workers are ramping up the pressure on airlines to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions. Joining us now to discuss is Mary Kay Henry, Service Employees International Union president. Mary Kay, good to see you here this morning. So it goes without saying airports are big places. Within an airport, where are-- where is it most pressing that workers get pay increases right now? And by how much?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, service workers that handle bags, clean cabins, move seniors and people with disabilities in wheelchairs from the gate to the curb, those are workers who are earning $8 an hour with no benefits and no guaranteed hours and who served us throughout the entire pandemic. And in places where the airlines have recognized unions and have bargained wages, a wheelchair attendant in Chicago is earning $18 an hour this month in July while the same attendant in Dallas is earning $8 an hour. And so workers are joining together and demanding higher wages and accountability from the corporations who've received billions in federal taxpayer throughout the pandemic to ensure that the traveling public has stable service from workers who can afford to feed their families.

- Mary Kay, $8, that is ridiculous.

MARY KAY HENRY: It is ridiculous.

- I couldn't even believe that when you just told it to me. Well, who's to blame for that? Who is holding worker wages back in this place?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, think about the profitability of the airlines pre-pandemic and then the $60 billion that happened in the first investment in '21 and then again, most recently this year in '22. And I think the CEOs of the major airlines American, Delta, and United are to blame. They have to make a decision to not play by the old rules, but to recognize the new moment that we're in and to address the worker shortage by investing in living wage jobs where people can join together in unions.

- Which airports are you taking this fight to, kind of just head-on right now? Because when we think about the delays, especially, and where those workers are actually being paid and what they're being paid, especially with the amount of delays and cancellations that do take place, that means even more volume, even more people that they've got to make sure that they're interfacing with correctly and providing data on a day-in and day-out basis.

MARY KAY HENRY: That's right, it's Dallas, Charlotte, and Phoenix is where we've seen the most worker activity. But service workers in our nation's airports have been demanding unions for the past 20 years in 24 other airports from JFK and LaGuardia, where workers have made wage gains to $19 an hour through their unions, to O'Hare, to San Francisco, LAX, and Seattle. Workers are pushing wages up above the federal minimum.

- And for the role types that we're looking across the board at here, when we think about the amount of roles that are necessary, both from the government side and all the way through the airline operators and who they employ, you know, when you're representing people, what are you hearing from them over the course of this summer where we do know that there is more capacity, there's more of that revenge travel that we were even talking about earlier and how they're dealing with customers at the same time trying to navigate through this fight for better pay?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, the service workers in airports report a very acute level of stress that is due to understaffing and because, understandably, the traveling public is mad about delayed flights and cancellations. And, as you know if you have been in airports recently, the frontline personnel do the very best they can to do right by passengers, but understand that the decisions that the corporate CEOs are making are the fundamental reason why there's too many delays and too many cancellations.

- Have you had the chance to meet with some of these CEOs? You're mentioning, Mary Kay, about these wages. And is there any sense that they are ready to pull the trigger on wage hikes?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, some CEOs in individual airports have been willing to take action. Like Chicago O'Hare, United was the driver up to the $18 minimum wage. In Philadelphia, American was the driver because it's a dominant hub for them to get those workers' wages up to $15. But the CEOs have wanted to limit their exposure into individual airports. And that's why the workers' demands have gone national.

Because there's a million service workers who are doing poverty wage work to keep our airports safe and for the traveling public to be able to get the service they need to get on flights on time. And that's why the workers have said to both the CEOs on March 31, we want good jobs that we can feed our families on. And in Congress in early May, we introduced the Good Jobs and Good Airports Act as a way to stabilize service for the traveling public by setting a national wage and benefit standard as a floor that all airlines are required to pay.

- What's the reality of a timeline for this? How long will it take in order to get some of the wages realized for workers in the airline space?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, wages have been going up in individualized airport. I think Congress could act when they return from a recess. And we could address this problem in the next three months. I don't know what you think about that. But it's not known for being very speedy. The other thing is CEOs could decide tomorrow to raise wages at the bottom to stabilize service at airports. So action is on the desks of the major airline CEOs.

- SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, thank you so much for joining us and the work that you and your team do. We appreciate it.