A polite, but determined, group of about 50 airport workers and their supporters rallied Monday to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport.
The push, part of the national 15 Now movement, urged the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) to increase wages of all workers at the airport, which is the 16th-largest in North America.
“We need you to take a stand on this issue,” said Chris Gray, a Minneapolis resident who is part of the 15 Now coalition.
The 15 Now organization was founded earlier this year in Seattle — the first city in the nation to enact a $15-an-hour minimum wage that will be phased in over several years. There are currently 15 chapters nationwide, and efforts have largely focused on the fast-food industry and airports.
The movement has gained steam on the state and local levels with congressional gridlock over raising the federal wage, now $7.25 an hour, said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, which supports the hike.
“Typically, it’s been the case when the federal minimum wage stays the same for a period of time, states and cities step in and fill in the void,” she said. So far, 26 states and the District of Columbia have enacted a minimum wage higher than the federal level, according to NELP research.
The move for a wage increase at the airport comes after the Legislature last session raised the state’s minimum wage from $6.15 an hour for large employers to $9.50 an hour in 2016, and indexed it to inflation beginning in 2018. The Minneapolis City Council is mulling a citywide $15-an-hour minimum wage (about $31,000 a year for full-timers).
Not everyone is a fan. Even though he was outnumbered Monday, local business consultant Frank Lorenz told the MAC that wholesale wage increases could trigger an increase in airline ticket prices and concessions.
“You don’t have a printing press to print money,” he told the commissioners.
MAC officials say they’re studying the wage issue in an effort to decide whether the commission “should go beyond state and federal minimum wage requirements within the fence line of the airport,” said spokesman Patrick Hogan.
Hogan pointed out that the commission actually employs fewer than 600 of the 19,800 employees at the airport. The “current labor debate … is focused on employees of private companies performing work under contract to other private companies.” The employees, he added, are covered under the minimum wage hike enacted this year.
Yet the 15 Now group vowed to return. On Monday, they were joined by students wearing bright yellow construction vests and hard hats from Summit Academy, a community-based vocational training and job placement program in north Minneapolis. “I come here as a human being who wants to provide for her family,” said Natasha Dennie, one of the students.
This is the second consecutive meeting where 15 Now representatives have pushed their case. Last month, members presented a petition bearing 1,000 names of workers in favor of the wage hike.
After the meeting, the 15 Now contingent picketed briefly outside Terminal 1 amid otherwise-clueless travelers clutching smartphones and dragging rolling suitcases. Organizers said the next step involves pressuring Gov. Mark Dayton, who appoints the bulk of the 15-member MAC board.
NELP’s Gebreselassie said airports are often targeted for these efforts because they’re essentially mini-cities, “with a lot of low-wage jobs, between food establishments, cleaners, wheelchair assistants and others.” She said several airports, including St. Louis, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have raised their minimum wage.
Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the U’s Carlson School of Management, said research indicates that raising the minimum wage helps elevate those earning the lowest wages, thus reducing poverty and dependence on public benefits. But, he noted, “going up to $15 [an hour] is a bigger change than the data that we’ve studied.”