More than 200 clergy and laymen from across the country prayed, sang and anointed the hands of airport workers Thursday in a demonstration to demand an increase in minimum wage at Philadelphia International Airport.
The demonstration was organized by Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild, POWER, and included activists from the national action group, People Improving Communities through Organizing, who traveled from as far west as California and as far south as Florida to advocate for the airport workers.
Several of the workers they were advocating for make $5.75 to $7.00 per hour as wheelchair assistants, baggage handlers and people working on line queues, welcoming and directing customers where to go. POWER spokeswoman Margaret Ernst said some of the workers are supposed to make up their wages in tips but many do not receive tips.
“We are here to support the workers fight for $15 minimum wage increase and the right to unionize,” said POWER Executive Director Bishop Dwayne Royster “We are anointing their hands and praying for them that they will have dignity at work and get to the $15 per hour minimum wage plus benefits.”
The demonstratio, which included mainly Catholic clergy and laymen, comes four months before Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia.
“We are praying that the Pope will advocate and talk about not just $15 an hour and the union, but also talk about whole systems that perpetuate poverty in Philadelphia and marginalize of people of color,” said Royster, adding that he expects the Pope to “talk about racism, income inequality, immigration reform and about how we need to lift up our minimum wage here and that people need unions.”
Several workers spoke about their struggle to maintain their families because of the wages.
“I don’t have any money to do anything with my daughter,” said Dawn Rivera, a Prime Flight employee, adding that she has to take side jobs so she can make enough money to cover bills.
“I take more jobs and I am not at home. This job is pulling families a part and it doesn’t even know it,” she said at the point of tears.
Tara Russell, also a Prime Flight employee, makes $7.25 per hour and shared a similar story.
“I have to pay rent, electric, and phone bill and I have a 15-year-old son, so I have to take care of him,” she said. “And it’s not enough. Sometimes I have to borrow money from other people.”
Alfred Williams, a baggage handler for Prime Flight makes $7.25 an hour as well.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “You have to pay your bills, feed yourself and get back to work. Before you know it, it’s gone. We are asking American Airlines to treat us with respect and give us the money we are owed.”
The demonstration began a little after 7 p.m. Several clergy rallied organizers with prayers, liturgies and spirited speeches.
During his speech, the Rev. Gregory Holston, POWER co-chair, said that the city was in a dilemma because of the low minimum wages. “When you can’t pay your bills, you’re in a state of emergency.”
After the initial prayers and speeches, the mass sang “This Little Light of Mine” and anointed airport workers’ hands with oil. They then proceeded to Terminal B, where US Airways is housed, knelt down on the ground, and prayed.
While inside the terminal, Holston and Pati Krasensky, a POWER organizer, attempted to deliver a demand letter addressed to the CEO of American Airlines (now merged with US Airways) to US Airways desk attendants but they refused to take it.
American Airlines is the airport’s lease holder and their subcontractors, including Prime Flight, pay their workers minimum wage or below.
“They said they were told by their director not to take the letter,” Krasensky said. “I think it stinks. Somebody needs to take responsibility.”
Gabe Morgan, vice president of 32 BJ SEIU, said even though City Council passed a bill that “mandates all subcontractors to pay 21st century living wages,” American Airlines is refusing to adhere to the mandate until the lease is up for renewal with the subcontractors.
“We don’t believe them and it is morally wrong,” Morgan said.
The mass proceeded through the remaining terminals, all the way to Terminal F, telling desk attendants “God Bless You” and other encouraging messages.
“I have hope,” Krasensky said. “We are not going to stop. We believe with all our hearts that people making $5 to $7 an hour deserve more, when the CEO is making $5 million a year.”