At Oakland Airport, Union and Non-Union Workers Picket Together

Union airport workers in Oakland, California, rallied yesterday to threaten a strike a week before Christmas, joined by non-union workers from food outlets like Subway and Auntie Anne's. They are another example of service sector workers, union and non-union, fighting back in new and unusual ways, from Walmart to fast food. Photo: Marc Norton.

When airport workers in Oakland, California, rallied yesterday to threaten a strike, they were joined by non-union workers from food outlets like Subway and Auntie Anne's. Their action came on the heels of a solidarity picket where workers from one union helped another in a 24-hour strike.

“We get no breaks, no overtime, no sick leave,” Hakima Arhab told management. Arhab was fired by Subway after she appeared in videos and flyers exposing the conditions of non-union workers at the airport.

About 100 of the 300 workers at the food outlets and stores in the airport are non-union. The rest are represented by UNITE HERE Local 2850, at outlets such as Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee, and Chili’s. The workers are largely people of color, primarily women, many of them immigrants.

“We are all human,” declared Mary Ann Espinoza, a worker at non-union Auntie Anne’s Pretzels for five years.

Local 2850 workers have been without a contract for months now, facing the usual employer demands for concessions, including dumping vastly increased health care costs on workers. They took a strike vote in November: 134 to zip.

Picketing for Others

Just a few days later, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Local 2850 workers found themselves on the picket line. They weren’t on strike themselves, but were honoring a 24-hour strike by Service Employees Local 1021. It was the first such job action by Local 2850 workers at the airport in decades, but they were glad to take the opportunity to flex some muscle and show their solidarity.

By 6 a.m., 50 Local 2850 pickets were on the line, carrying SEIU picket signs. According to the picketing workers, not a single Local 2850 member crossed the line, and the airport’s unionized stores were either shut down or run by frantic managers.

The previous evening, SEIU maintenance, security, custodial, and clerical workers had gone on strike at the Oakland airport and the Port of Oakland, both run by the port commissioners. They had been working without a contract for 17 months. The SEIU strike shut down every terminal at the port.

At one point, more than 100 trucks were idling uselessly at the port gate, due primarily to the solidarity displayed by the Longshore Union (ILWU). But the port shutdown was helped along by the fact that SEIU workers could concentrate their forces at the port, while leaving their picket lines at the airport largely in the capable hands of Local 2850 members.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was forced to convene an emergency meeting of port officials and SEIU. This put negotiations back on track and led to a tentative agreement now in the process of being ratified.

Solidarity, as always, was the key to victory.

No Struggle, No Progress

In turn, yesterday Local 2850 workers were joined at their rally by a contingent of SEIU workers, eager to show their solidarity. “Local 2850 workers stood with us during our strike, so we are here to stand with them,” said Yvette Nixon, an SEIU airport custodian. “I don’t get paid a lot, but it is a lot compared to the non-union workers at the airport.”

“There is no progress without struggle,” Nixon added. “Frederick Douglass said that.”

Wei-Ling Huber, president of Local 2850, said the union has set a strike deadline of December 17. Local 2850 is negotiating directly with HMS Host. Host runs most of the food outlets and stores at the airport, but also subcontracts out to non-union operators.

The developing fight at the Oakland airport is another example of service sector workers, union and non-union, fighting back in new and unusual ways, whether at Walmart, the largest retail operation in the world, or at Subway, the largest restaurant chain in the world.

Look for workers at the Oakland Airport to mix it up again soon.

Marc Norton has been a rank-and-file member of UNITE HERE Local 2, the San Francisco hotel and restaurant workers union, since 1976. His website is www.MarcNorton.us.