Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer claimed to have met a janitor earning the minimum wage at Kennedy Airport who would see a pay increase if she were represented by a union, despite the fact that she is already a union member.
Schumer (D., N.Y.) on Wednesday joined major labor leaders, including AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, at a Tuesday press conference to emphasize the party's commitment to organized labor. Normally a loyal Democratic voting bloc, organized labor saw swaths of members defect to President Donald Trump in 2016.
Schumer said he was inspired by an encounter with a female janitor at Kennedy Airport, who he said earned minimum wage because she worked as a subcontractor.
"I met a young woman on minimum wage cleaning toilets at Kennedy Airport. Twenty years ago it would have been a union job," he said. "Freedom to negotiate will turn things around for America, and we're going to fight, fight, fight to get this done."
Schumer's anecdote ignored a key fact about the airport's work environment: subcontracted workers are dues paying members of labor giant Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. The union called the campaign to unionize those workers "historic" and won support from workers by promising to bargain for a $15 minimum wage.
"When we started organizing three years ago, I was struggling to survive on poverty wages. Today my coworkers and I have a path to $15 an hour and we began bargaining our first union contract," an airport baggage handler said in a union press release. "It has been an amazing journey and I know we can keep fighting until this contract is negotiated and in place to protect the rights we have won on the job."
When it came time to negotiate on behalf of those workers, however, the union failed to include wages and benefits in its bargaining. The union contract ratified in December 2016 relied on the state of New York's mandatory minimum wage hike to give workers a raise from the $10.10 rate set by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The new union members at the Newark International Airport, however, saw no pay increase because its $10.10 rate was higher than the state minimum in New Jersey. Workers began paying monthly dues to 32-BJ despite not seeing a substantial pay increase. The union charges members monthly dues ranging from $15.19 to $79.08, as well as initiation fees between $25 and $150, according to its latest labor filing.
Schumer later corrected his omission in a Senate speech criticizing the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees, a forthcoming Supreme Court case that challenges forced unionism among government workers. He said if the Supreme Court strikes down mandatory union membership as a condition of employment, "it will be a dark day for the American worker." He told his colleagues about the airport janitor he had spoken of earlier, while failing to mention that union membership did not boost her wages.
"She got minimum wage and could hardly support herself," he said. "When Shareeka and her coworkers won a union contract, they were able to gain the tools they needed to protect themselves and do their work in a safer environment."
He pledged that Democrats' plan to boost union representation "will do for so many Americans what Shareeka's union did for her in New York."
The union is one of the largest and most influential branches of SEIU, representing about 150,000 workers in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. It collected $95 million in dues and agency fees in 2016, and spent $9.6 million on political activities and lobbying.
The SEIU spent $55 million on the 2016 election to support Hillary Clinton and other Democrats and directly contributed $1.4 million to Democratic House and Senate candidates in 2016 with $0 going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In a statement, a 32BJ spokesperson said:
"It was through their work with 32BJ over the last four years in the Fight for $15 that Shareeka and her coworkers at JFK and LaGuardia have been able to raise their wages from $7.25 to $11 an hour currently and to $15 by the end of 2018. 32BJ airport members continue the fight to keep raising wages and benefits for NYC-area airport workers."
UPDATE 3:45 P.M.: This post has been updated with comment from a 32BJ spokesperson.