A dispute between an airplane cleaning crew and two managers this past weekend emerged Tuesday as the latest example of tensions between low-wage workers and employers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Members of the seven-person cleaning crew, all Muslims and employees of U.S. Aviation Services Corp., a contractor for Delta Air Lines at the airport, said they were fired after taking a few minutes off for obligatory prayer at a time when they had no planes to clean. A manager asked for their security badges and told them they were fired, the leader of the work crew, Mubarek Mohamed, said.

The company said the workers took the break at a moment when they had been assigned a plane and their absence caused a flight delay. It said the workers were told to go home and return Monday to discuss the matter with higher-level managers but none did.

The dispute was publicized by the Service Employees International Union Local 26, which turned an event previously scheduled for Tuesday afternoon to call for a higher minimum wage at the airport into a march on U.S. Aviation and Delta offices calling for rehiring of the seven.

“I want to go back,” said Mohamed, who had worked for U.S. Aviation for four months. He added that he didn’t want to work directly with the manager and supervisor who told him and the others that they were fired during Friday’s dispute.

“They spoke to us rudely and without respect,” he said, saying one manager used swear words. “We took only five minutes, and we had no plane on the ground.”

Another worker, Fardowsa Osman, said a boss had screamed and cursed at workers “many times before this.”

About 30 people, including several clergy, joined in the protest and march, which ended at a Delta office building on the west side of the airport. Executives there directed the workers to discuss the matter with U.S. Aviation.

That company, a unit of Chicago-based United Services Cos., won a bid to provide ground services, including cabin cleaning, baggage handling, in-terminal assistance and other work for Delta at MSP in the summer of 2017.

In its statement, U.S. Aviation said it knew when it got the contract that most of its workers would be Muslim and developed practices for workers to take prayer breaks.

“Specifically, we afford several daily prayer breaks and dedicated prayer space for our employees who want to exercise that aspect of their faith, as well as multiple and regular breaks throughout the workday to allow for prayer in accordance with the employees’ faith,” the company said.

The airport has only a chaplain’s office in Terminal 1 that some employees use for such breaks but allows people to pray where they wish as long as it doesn’t disrupt passengers. Melissa Scovronski, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said individual companies at the airport are responsible “for determining their own policies and procedures for their employees.”

The dispute thrust more attention on the SEIU event that was originally designed to renew attention on wages at MSP. Large airports like MSP have become high-profile backdrops for the nation’s broader wage debate because they produce thousands of jobs that tend to be low-paying, stretch over all hours of the day and vary between indoor and outdoor settings.

But for the SEIU and other activist groups, the short, fluid contracts between airlines, restaurants and hotels and subcontracting firms make it difficult to sustain momentum for better wages and benefits on behalf of workers.

In 2015, the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which operates MSP, responded to SEIU, activists and workers by setting a minimum wage of $10 an hour for all workers there, $1 above the state minimum wage for large employers at the time. The following year, SEIU Local 26 won the right to represent several hundred workers of Delta’s previous contractor for ground services, AirServ Corp.

After Delta hired U.S. Aviation to handle ground services at MSP, U.S. Aviation agreed that the union local could be “our employees’ exclusive bargaining representative provided the union demonstrates it has the majority support of our employees.” But it added the union hasn’t yet been able to secure majority support from its workers.

“Perhaps its failure to do so reflects our employees’ understanding that the recent claims made by the union regarding the company and its operations are utterly false,” the company said in its statement.

 

 

Staff writer Janet Moore contributed to this report.