A week or so ago, I was blessed with a visit by a group of very hardworking New Yorkers – airport workers at the two New York City airports. These workers – both men and women – clean the planes, fill certain security and safety roles, help and transport passengers, and handle baggage. They told me of their current struggles for decent wages to support themselves and their families, and their hope to organize to gain a living wage and more respectable working conditions. As I listened, along with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, our neighbor in the Diocese of Brooklyn who had graciously joined us for the meeting, I also sensed deep pride in their Catholic faith.
I was particularly impressed with the story told by one of the workers…..
Gertrudes Contreras, a fifty-nine year old airplane cabin cleaner from Peru, has been working at the airport for nine years. She spoke of the hard work and the modest compensation she receives. Gertrudes’ dreams of becoming an American Citizen, and at our meeting she spoke of her love for this country. Her hopes of uniting her family in this country, and her belief in the American dream, is what fuels her desire to fight for her right to organize, for herself, her family, and her coworkers, for a decent wage, for basic benefits, and, reasonable time-off.
She also took the opportunity to share her love for, and devotion to, “Our Lord of Miracles,” a title given to Jesus in her native country.
The humble laborers were joined by Hector Figueroa, President of Local 32BJ of SEIU, the union has been at the forefront of these organizing efforts. Hector has been an ally in two very important NYS legislative education matters – the educational tax credit and the Dream Act. I look forward to continuing to work with him on these items next year.
Why did they visit me and why was I was blessed to be visited by them? A simple reason – these workers and the Catholic Church are allies in a common cause, the dignity of work: safe working conditions and decent wages to enable workers and their families to live in the dignity that is rightly theirs as made in the image of God.
I am not expert enough to get into the specific details of the negotiations that are underway. I do not know the precise solution to every issue. However, I can affirm that when both sides to an issue sit down, and in good faith, bargain together, most times good things happen for both sides. That’s the reason the Church is a strong advocate for the rights of workers to bargain collectively. I was happy to hear that the airlines, the Port Authority and managers with whom they are negotiating have been listening, and that some progress is being made.
In a personal way, I was moved by these workers who are often in the background as many New Yorkers – including myself – quickly pass through the airports onto planes to take them on business or vacation. We barely pay mind to those who are making sure that this operation functions well. I do know this, I will walk differently through the airport the next time I do so.