Abdi Ali says he hasn't gotten a real raise in eight years.
The Somali immigrant started working as a cart driver at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 2007, earning $6.25 per hour. Now he earns $9 an hour, but that's not enough to keep up with rent increases he's faced and the cost of college classes he takes.
"It's stressful because I don't have benefits, I don't have vacation days, I don't have health care," Ali said. "Sometimes you think, why am I working like this?"
Wages at the airport, the Twin Cities' largest employer of East African immigrants, have become a key issue for activists in the local Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities.
Most Somali immigrants in Minnesota live in poverty, which also is rising among the state's more affluent Ethiopian community, according to a new report promoted Wednesday by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The union argues that the fate of East Africans in Minnesota is inextricably tied to wages at the airport, and that the Metropolitan Airports Commission should require all subcontractors at the airport to pay workers a minimum of $15 per hour.
More than 2,500 East Africans work at the airport; nearly three out of five foreign-born workers at MSP are from Somalia, Eritrea or Ethiopia.
"There is a crisis of poverty in Minnesota's East African communities, and with the MSP airport as the number one employer of these communities, the Metropolitan Airports Commission could make an immediate and powerful impact on this issue," said report author Eden Yosief, a social justice research fellow at the Center for Popular Democracy who also works for SEIU. "Changing the lives of East Africans in Minnesota is going to start at MSP."
The report is the latest move in a concerted campaign by the SEIU and its allies to push up wages for workers at MSP, considered one of the nation's best airports in customer surveys and by several financial measures.
The SEIU is trying to organize cart drivers and wheelchair assistants and has organized protests at the airport. Gov. Mark Dayton in February appointed Ibrahim Mohamed, a cart driver from Rosemount, to the Metropolitan Airports Commission. And Dayton last month called for a $10 minimum wage for airport workers.
The airport's competitiveness would be damaged and its status as a major hub challenged, says Ben Gerber, a labor policy analyst at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, who argues that higher wages for airport workers will drive up the cost of flights through MSP and shunt traffic to cheaper hubs.
"People pick their tickets based on prices and convenience," he said. "If flying through Minneapolis is more expensive, they won't pick it."
Since roughly 50 percent of passengers passing through the airport are connecting to another destination, the effects of higher airport costs would be dramatic, Gerber said. "I think there's a real threat there," he said.
The Metropolitan Airports Commission, in a statement, said it has taken steps to ensure vendors "compensate their employees fairly" and has long had a strong relationship with labor. Employees like Ali work for contractors whose wages the commission does not control. However, the MAC board will discuss wages over the next couple of months.
"We would hope a modest pay increase for the lowest paid workers would not impact air service at MSP, but that is a question only the airlines can answer," said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the airports commission.
The airport is a natural fit for immigrants from East Africa, said Ali. It is a short light-rail ride to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, where he lives, the work is indoors, and he and other immigrants think of airport work as a vital vocation with a certain level of prestige.
Asked why he has continued to work for a company that pays poorly, Ali said the reason has changed over the years. At first, he thought he couldn't find a better job. "It was 2008, remember," he said. "People lost their jobs. I didn't think I could get another job at that time."
He didn't have a car, he lived in Cedar-Riverside, was working part-time and he was taking college classes in social work, so it was difficult for him to imagine finding something better. Now he's still finishing school, the job is familiar and he's gained some competence at it.
"When you work somewhere for a long time, and you have friends and you know everything," he said, "it's hard for you to look for something else."