Congress needs to protect the Black, Brown and immigrant workforce that makes air travel possible

Fighting for civil rights and justice has been my priority for more than 45 years, and I am enthused by the progress I’ve witnessed and the changes I’ve been a part of in my lifetime. But the work is never done, and when any of us sees injustice, it’s imperative that we stamp it out.

I am privileged to travel all over the country and the world in my work as a pastor. It’s through my travels that I’ve seen firsthand how Black, Brown and immigrant airport service workers all across America are suffering and have, for too long, been invisible.

It is our moral imperative to bring these stories of injustice from the darkness into the light. Like Zach Bodine, who is a baggage handler at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. He makes sure that travelers’ suitcases and equipment are safely loaded onto planes and arrive at their final destinations. 

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This past summer, as temperatures in Phoenix reached 115 degrees, Zach loaded heavy baggage without the access to water and breaks recommended to stay safe in dangerous heat. He experienced symptoms of heat exhaustion, including dehydration and nausea, and found himself looking for hiding spots on the tarmac just to catch his breath because he wasn’t allowed to take a break. 

Zach’s concerns about his health are compounded by financial worry. He is paid $15 an hour, which barely covers the basics like rent and groceries. Without affordable health insurance, going to the doctor is a luxury Zach simply can’t afford.

Airport service workers like Zach make air travel possible. Cabin cleaners, wheelchair agents, baggage handlers, cargo workers and more are a majority Black, Brown and immigrant workforce that we all rely on to keep our economy running and our communities connected.

Meanwhile, as these workers toil in unsafe conditions and struggle to make ends meet, airlines are raking in record revenues and paying their CEOs millions of dollars. 

Most air travelers are frustrated by winding security lines, soaring ticket prices and general airport chaos. As a nation, we’ve been blind to how a modern civil rights crisis fueled by corporate greed is taking place within our airports. 

Airlines are failing to ensure that service workers receive sustaining wages and benefits. Instead, they prioritize profits while an invisible majority-people-of-color workforce works through severe heat, pandemics and more to keep us flying. They boast about state-of-the art airports while ignoring the contradiction with how treatment of the workers within those airports lags far behind. 

This is the type of injustice that makes entire communities suffer, and it’s happening all over the country. 

It shouldn’t be this way, and now Congress has a chance to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of airport service workers around the country. The March 8 deadline is looming for Congress to fund the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that has the power to establish wage and benefit standards like affordable health care and paid time off for aviation workers. 

Although the FAA has established job standards that protect predominantly white aviation workforces like pilots, air traffic controllers and flight attendants, the agency has historically left behind the majority Black, Brown and immigrant airport service workforce whose labor powers the air travel system. 

Until all workers have the protections, fair wages and adequate health care they deserve, the air travel industry will continue to exist upon a foundation of injustice. Last September, building on the legacy of civil rights leaders who have come before, Zach bravely took arrest during a peaceful protest to advocate for the rights of airport service workers. He is one of hundreds of airport service workers across the country who have taken bold action to demonstrate that they are willing to go the distance to fight for justice. 

I am excited to join workers like Zach as they build power. Through solidarity, we can make change. Now, Congress must join the fight and pass Good Jobs for Good Airports wage and benefit standards for the 300,000 workers keeping all of us flying. 

It’s thanks to them that we can travel, see the world, and connect with loved ones. It’s time to treat them like the essential workers they are.

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