Union rallies to secure $15 wage for Detroit airport workers

During her 2018 campaign for governor, Whitmer participated in walk-a-day in the shoes experience with Gail Blackmon, a SEIU Local 1 janitor at DTW’s McNamara Terminal | Ken Coleman

Gerald Scruggs, a cabin cleaner at Detroit Metro Airport (DTW), says that he hasn’t been treated well by his employer, Prospect Airport Services.

“I’m coming together with my coworkers to win at least $15 [an hour] and a union because we need to be able to support our families,” Scruggs said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Ken Coleman

Chanting “When we stand, we win!,” about 100 passenger service workers on Wednesday launched a Fight for $15 and Unions for All effort during a rally at Detroit Metro Airport’s McNamara Terminal. 

The effort is being organized by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), an organization that has sought to achieve $15 per hour wages for downtown Detroit security guards and janitors, as well as health care workers and fast food employees during the last several years. 

The airport protesters were joined by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Wayne County Commission Chair Alisha Bell and Wayne County Commissioner Irma Clark-Coleman, both Detroit Democrats.   

“As a lifelong Detroiter, I know how $15 and good union jobs at DTW would strengthen communities across our city,” said Darren Moore, a service recovery worker. “Today, airport workers at DTW join airport workers in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and more who are fighting to make sure our airports are economic engines for our communities, not just the wealthy and well-connected.”

Gretchen Whitmer with SEIU members | Ken Coleman

During her 2018 campaign for governor, Whitmer participated in walk-a-day in the shoes experience with Gail Blackmon, a SEIU Local 1 janitor at DTW’s McNamara Terminal, to better understand the hard work it takes to keep the airport clean and safe.

“When you work as hard as SEIU do, you deserve a good wage,” Whitmer said. “You deserve good benefits. You deserve to have time off to be with your family. So I wanted to be here to support SEIU. What you do is most important to support the members and the families who make up this organization. Michigan is a great state, but we are not going to reach our potential until everyone is this state has a patch that leads them to a wage where you can sustain a family and move ahead on.”  

Gerald Scruggs | Ken Coleman photo

Despite being the second-largest hub for Delta Airlines, DTW’s contracted passenger service workers, cabin cleaners, gate agents and ramp agents make substandard wages, workers pointed out. 

With Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary election less than a week away on Tuesday, workers are flexing their collective muscle to call on state elected leaders and 2020 candidates to stand up for them ensuring they earn $15 per hour and and have the union representation they need to support their families.

“If presidential candidates and leaders in this state want to win our votes, they need to make it easier for working people like me to join a union so we can raise wages and rebalance our economy,” Scruggs said.

Michigan SEIU members haven’t made a presidential endorsement. Last summer, national President Mary Kay Henry said that “many of the 2020 presidential candidates talk about banning Right to Work laws … or tweaking the rules to make it a little bit easier for workers to join unions. 

Michigan minimum-wage workers got a raise on Jan. 1. But they won’t see $12/hour until 2030.

“But to truly improve the lives of working people, we need all of them to think even bigger. We need to make it possible for all workers to join together across employers, industries and geographies … not workplace by workplace by the dozens, but by the hundreds of thousands and millions. We need workers who have been historically excluded from labor law to be included.”

Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls participated in a SEIU presidential forum held in Los Angeles in October. Attending were former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, (D-N.J.) U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, (D-Minn.), former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Wayne County Commissioner Irma Clark-Coleman | Ken Coleman

Only Biden and Sanders of that group remain in the race.

Meanwhile, Clark-Coleman said that while the rallying workers are not Delta direct employees, DTW’s lead airport carrier should use its leverage to encourage its contractors to improve wages for their employees:

“You can’t afford to pay a babysitter and work on the kind of salaries they make,” Clark-Coleman said. “It is ridiculous.”  

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.