Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Low-Wage Workers Shut Down Airports Across the Country, Demand Better Pay and Affordable Health Care

With a strike authorization already on the table, Tuesday’s actions could be the first step toward a bigger nationwide strike of airport workers.

Facebook Twitter Share

In a scene reminiscent of the massive airport protests against Trump’s Immigration policies in 2017, airport workers shut down access to several of the biggest airports in the country on Tuesday, demanding higher wages and more affordable health care. At 17 airports, from New York to Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and D.C., food service employees represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and Unite Here held die-ins, blocked terminals, and halted traffic on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Overall, several thousand members participated in the nationwide protests and more than 100 people were arrested. 

Although Tuesday’s demonstrations were staged events tightly controlled and orchestrated by the union bureaucracy, they nonetheless offered a glimpse of the real power of the working class to disrupt business as usual, particularly in the transport sector, where such disruptions can shut down entire cities. 

These protests are yet another example of the rising level of class struggle in the U.S. since the 2018 Teachers strikes. In June, 11,000 workers from 33 airports in 28 cities voted by a great majority to authorize a strike, and Tuesday’s demonstrations are a clear escalation of tactics that could lead to a nationwide strike of airport food service workers in the near future. Unfortunately, there are two things standing in the way of such action: The Railway Labor Act (RLA) and the union bureaucracy. 

Like other anti-union laws across the country, the RLA represents a compromise between labor and the State, a compromise that is almost never in the interests of workers. While the law provides some protections for unions, such as the continuation of expired contracts, it also prohibits unauthorized strikes until the union can prove that arbitration has failed. This compromise not only weakens the ability of unions to use the strike weapon when they see fit, it also ties them to the state in a way that inhibits more radical independent action.

In other words, with the RLA in place, the union leaderships must request the approval of the National Mediation Board to stop work. After receiving permission to go on strike, workers would have to wait another 30 days in a “cool down” period. During that time American Airlines would no doubt prepare to keep disruptions to a minimum. 

But a law is only worth the paper it is written on and can be broken by the strength of workers. American Airlines itself is 85% unionized between the pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, baggage handlers, and various other classifications, and other airlines are likewise well unionized. Additionally, at Delta, 25,000 flight attendants are fighting to join the Association of Flight Attendants led by firebrand left bureaucrat Sara Nelson. There are plenty of natural allies of the airline food service workers, and those numbers are growing. 

So why then were Unite Here members not joined in solidarity from the unions that represent the other trades in American Airlines? Where were the signs from the mechanics and baggage handlers, the pilots and the flight attendants? At the JFK protest, the union bureaucrats had Mayor Bill de Blasio and other Democratic Party movers and shakers speak on stage—surely they could have organized a few workers from other sectors. That solidarity is key. 

During the protests, Unite Here claimed that every minute a terminal was delayed the company lost thousands of dollars. What would happen if all flights were cancelled throughout an airport? Not just one airport, but 33? Instead of meticulously-planned spectacles directed from the stage with plenty of staff and politicians on hand, a strike that wins a living wage and quality healthcare will require rank and file committees throughout all classifications at airports across the nation. These actions would most likely have to be created by workers themselves, as the union leaderships have demonstrated that they are more concerned with politicians and the law than organizing actions that can win substantive gains for workers.  

Like other countries across the world, the United States is experiencing a significant upsurge in class struggle, particularly strike activity. Indeed, since the massive teachers strike wave in 2018—which has extended into 2019 and shows no signs of slowing down—U.S. workers, both public and private, have rediscovered the weapon of the strike. 

As the recent strikes at GM and Stop and Shop show, working people can fight and win better wages and working conditions when they organize and fight. However, building workers’ power is about more than just winning wages and benefits. Developing and building radical rank and file unions within the transportation and logistics sector would lay the foundations necessary for strikes that could shut down the entire economy. Such a weapon—in the hands of working people—could win significant gains for the working class and even topple governments. If several hundred air traffic controllers have the power to force the government to reopen, as they did in 2018, imagine what could be achieved if the entire airline industry went on strike alongside warehouse and distribution center workers.  

Building such a fighting labor movement, however, will require a radical and self-organized rank and file movement capable of taking on the union bureaucracy as well as the state. While we applaud the widespread demonstrations on Tuesday as a courageous step forward for airline caterers, and as further evidence of growing militancy in our class, socialists must point out the obstacles in our way. The labor bureaucracy depends upon and works hand in hand with the state to maintain labor peace. Only the rank and file have the power to build a strike that can break the RLA and win the demand that “One Job Should Be Enough.”

Facebook Twitter Share

James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.


Ioan Georg

Ioan is a factory worker at an optical lens plant in Queens, NY and a shop steward in IUE-CWA Local 463.

Labor Movement

Cargo ship crashing into a bridge in Baltimore on March 26, 2024.

Baltimore Bridge Collapse Reveals Unsafe Working Conditions for Immigrant Workers

Six Latine immigrant workers died in the March 26 bridge collapse in Baltimore. The accident exposed how capitalism perpetuates dangerous working conditions for many immigrants, and funds genocide over crumbling public infrastructure.

Julia Wallace

April 4, 2024

Self Organization and the Mexican Student Strike 

Left Voice member speaks about the massive 1999 Mexican student strike and the role of assemblies.

Jimena Vergara

March 30, 2024

“Our Big Push Was for Union Democracy and a Plan to Win”: An Interview with the Amazon Labour Union Democratic Reform Caucus

Two years after the historic victory at JFK8, Amazon workers voted in a referendum in their union. They want to hold new elections and revise the constitution, as part of a struggle to make ALU more democratic and militant. Left Voice spoke with two organizers to discuss the struggle in ALU.

Luigi Morris

March 20, 2024
A banner reads "Real Wages Or We Strike" at a rally for CUNY, which is experiencing cuts from Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul.

CUNY Faculty and Staff Have Gone One Year Without a Contract — It’s Time to Strike

CUNY workers have been without a new contract for a full year and the university has yet to make any economic offers. It's time to take action.

Olivia Wood

February 29, 2024


Thousands of Police Deployed to Shut Down Congress on Palestine in Berlin

This weekend, a Palestine Congress was supposed to take place in the German capital. But 2,500 police were mobilized and shut down the event before the first speech could be held. Multiple Jewish comrades were arrested.

Nathaniel Flakin

April 12, 2024

Liberal Towns in New Jersey Are Increasing Attacks on Pro-Palestine Activists

A group of neighbors in South Orange and Maplewood have become a reference point for pro-Palestine organizing in New Jersey suburbs. Now these liberal towns are upping repression against the local activists.

Samuel Karlin

April 12, 2024

“We Shouldn’t Let this Stop Us”: Suspended Columbia Student Activist Speaks Out

Aidan Parisi, a student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, was recently suspended and has been threatened with eviction from their graduate student housing for pro-Palestinian activism on campus. Aidan talked to Left Voice about the state of repression, the movement at Columbia, and the path forward for uniting the student movement with the labor movement and other movements against oppression.

Left Voice

April 11, 2024

Fired by a German University for Solidarity with Palestine — Interview with Nancy Fraser

The University of Cologne canceled a guest professorship with the philosophy professor from The New School. In this interview, she speaks about Germany dividing between "Good Jews" and "Bad Jews," her politicization in the civil rights movement, and her time in an Israeli kibbutz.

Nathaniel Flakin

April 10, 2024