Emptying airplane lavatory holding tanks is a disgusting job.
After each flight, workers at Logan Airport stand underneath the aircraft to drain the waste and are often splashed with blue sanitizing liquid — and sometimes worse, they said. They have thin plastic gloves and face shields, but are not provided with skin protection or antibacterial soap to clean up afterward. There is no extra gear when it rains or snows.
For this, working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., Jean Carlos Torres and other employees of the contractor ReadyJet make $8 to $10 an hour. No sick time, no health care. The cost of their security badges and uniforms is deducted from their paychecks.
Torres is one of hundreds of baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, and wheelchair attendants who have been working with a union for the past three years to demand higher pay and better working conditions from a dozen contractors at the airport. On Thursday, the workers ramped up their fight, rallying with politicians, labor leaders, community activists, and workplace safety advocates at the Downtown Crossing headquarters of 32BJ Service Employees International, the labor union trying to organize about 1,500 Boston airport employees.
“Workers have been playing by the rules. They’ve been coming to work every day to keep the airport running.” said Roxana Rivera, the union’s New England district director. “They risk being stuck at the bottom of the system that condemns them to living in poverty and in fear.”
Unions are working to organize airport workers, many of them immigrants, in more than a dozen cities around the country, part of a growing movement of low-wage employees who are speaking up about their working conditions.
At Logan, workers who clean planes, provide passenger assistance, and transport baggage and cargo make between $8 and $10 an hour, with no benefits. Several companies have been cited for withholding pay from workers, including one of the largest, ReadyJet, which last month was ordered by Attorney General Martha Coakley to pay more than $18,000 for failing to make timely payments to employees. ReadyJet could not be reached for comment.
Last year, the union accused six contractors of unfair labor practices, including restricting free speech, spying on a union meeting, and firing an employee for speaking out about working conditions. Since then, other workers have been fired for union activities, they said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also fined several of the companies, which are hired by the airlines, for letting workers use corrosive chemicals and dispose of lavatory waste without proper protection.
Coakley, running for governor, was one of several elected officials who spoke in support of the workers at the rally.
“Our big corporations out there don’t worry about minimum wage or sick time,” Coakley said. “They’re probably on vacation because it’s August.”
State Treasurer Steve Grossman, who is running against Coakley, was also there, leading the workers in chants of “We will win” and “Si se puede. (Yes, we can).”
“If they didn’t go to work,” Grossman said, “Logan Airport would shut down.”
Low wages and poor working conditions do not just hurt workers, said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU. They also hurt customers.
“High turnover compromises the quality of services,” he said. “It’s in the interest of the public that we make these better jobs.”
The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, has added several requirements to its operating agreements as a result of worker complaints and organized labor efforts As of this year, any company replacing an existing contractor must hire the prior firm’s workers. Contractors must also, if workers successfully organize, negotiate labor issues with the union to avoid strikes.
“We are sympathetic to the concerns raised regarding working conditions and take them seriously,” Massport said in a statement. “For at least a year, we have investigated various complaints received from airport workers and have referred the results of those investigations to the attorney general for further investigation.”
Emmanuel Sebit, 21, Logan baggage handler from war-torn South Sudan, spoke at the rally about his dashed expectations of what life would be like in the United States after leaving a refugee camp in Kenya.
“When I was in Kenya I was told coming to America would give me all kinds of opportunities,” he said. “Security, yes, I have the security today. But when it comes to good jobs, no.”