ANNAPOLIS — In a crowded meeting room at the State House, Rev. Ty Hullinger stood before a panel of important decision makers, his traditional clerical attire contrasted against the sea of suits and business wear. In his hand was a box of boarding passes. Hundreds of them.
They were Boarding Passes for Justice, he explained to Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Board of Public Works last week, and they were signed by 1,000 Marylanders who are standing in solidarity for retail and food service workers at Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
“That’s a lot of boarding passes, Father,” O’Malley said.
“We can bring more too,” Hullinger replied.
According to several advocacy groups, food service and retail workers at BWI are not being fairly compensated. Employees have little job security and limited access to benefits and full-time hours, said Meghan Cohorst, a spokeswoman for UNITE HERE Local 7, the Baltimore chapter of the national labor union.
“We want those 800-plus workers to be able to earn a fair wage and feel secure in their jobs and be able to afford health care,” Cohorst said.
The imitation boarding passes were signed earlier this month by members of 50 congregations in the Baltimore area that participated in this year’s Labor in the Pulpits campaign, Hullinger said. Labor in the Pulpits is sponsored by advocacy organization Interfaith Worker Justice as way for faith communities and union members to collaboratively raise awareness and support low-wage workers.
But the main subject of advocacy groups’ lobbying efforts is not BWI, or even airport store owners. It is concessions developer AIRMALL USA, which manages approximately 75 food and retail shops at BWI.
“The campaign at BWI is not necessarily aimed at…specific employers, it’s actually calling on AIRMALL USA,” Cohorst said. “We’re asking AIRMALL to help implement these changes… They have the power right now to make those changes.”
In a statement issued Wednesday, AIRMALL spokesman Jeff Donaldson said that potential unionization is a matter between the individual businesses and their employees.
“It is important to point out that AIRMALL USA does not employ the concessions workers at BWI,” he said. “AIRMALL USA is the concessions developer, much like a shopping mall developer. The concessions workers are employees of the shops and restaurants that make up our program, and it is those operators (and not AIRMALL) that determine wages and benefits for their employees.”
Guetwende Yameogo is a line cook at a restaurant inside BWI and started working at the airport around two years ago. He said that the restaurant where he works is understaffed, and that the manager is inattentive to the needs of the workers.
Yameogo started at $8 an hour and is now paid $13 an hour. But he said he is still struggling to get by.
“All the money I can get I use it to pay my bills,” he said. “I live paycheck to paycheck.”
Yameogo believes that other airport workers are hesitant to speak up because they are afraid for their jobs, he said.
“We are trying to get a union at the diner so that we can get some of the benefits that we don’t have, and fight for what’s right…,” he said. “The right to respect and a workplace free of discrimination and harassment. The right to job security. The right to join a union in a neutral environment. The right to work full time for fair wages and benefits. That’s what we are fighting for right now at BWI.”
Currently the Boarding Passes of Justie are sitting in O’Malley’s office as various stakeholders attempt to reach an agreement, Samantha Kappalman, a spokeswoman for the governor, said.
“The secretary of state is convening the discussion and though disagreements remain, efforts are ongoing,” she said.
BWI airport has received attention lately for its planned $125 million expansion which will include a new 10-lane security checkpoint and improved capacity for international flights. Some workers’ rights advocates view this as an opportunity to promote discussion and further their cause.
“Many of the food and retail workers at BWI must rely on food stamps and other subsidized programs,” Deacon Ed Munro, of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, testified at the Board of Public Works. “I encourage our governor and other elected officials that as we prepare to expand the airport…that we also make it a better place and invest in the people who work there.”
Leslie Spacek contributed to this article.