Labor Battle Looms at Airport
Service and hospitality workers for SSP America demand union vote, may call for picketing or a strike.
A battle between labor and management is brewing at the General Mitchell International Airport.
Workers for SSP America, a food service concessionaire that operates in airports around the country, are attempting to organize a union at the Milwaukee airport so they may negotiate collectively for a fair wage agreement like the one implemented for the new Milwaukee Bucks arena, plus union rights and a union hiring hall.
Milwaukee Area Services and Hospitality (MASH) have a petition, which they say a majority of workers have signed and support, and they have the support of nine county supervisors who have called for negotiations, and yet, SSP America continues to “stonewall” the organizers and their workers at the airport, according to Peter Rickman, executive director of MASH.
Before the county board headed into their August recess, Rickman went before the Transportation, Public Works, and Transit committee and said, in no uncertain terms, that if SSP America does not recognize efforts to form a union, there will be labor unrest.
County Supervisors Marcelia Nicholson, Marina Dimitrijevic, Sequanna Taylor, Felesia Martin, Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, Steven Shea, Willie Johnson, Jr., Supreme Moore Omokunde and Jason Haas wrote a letter to SSP on May 16 calling on SSP America to enter into an agreement with MASH. “As policy-makers who govern the airport, we believe it imperative that operations continue uninterrupted by strikes, picketing, or the like,” the letter declared.
Urban Milwaukee made repeated attempts to speak with officials at SSP America, but the company hasn’t responded.
But a letter written in late May by the company’s Chief Operating Officer Pat Banducci to Supervisor Nicholson and Rickman — and obtained by Urban Milwaukee — lays out the firm’s approach to the workers’ attempt to create a union.
Banducci wrote that SSP America has already bumped up the workers hourly wage to $12.07, provides employees with access to health insurance plans and flexible scheduling, and notes their pay rate is equivalent to that of another contractor at the Milwaukee Airport whose employees are already represented by a union.
The firm will respect employees’ desire to be represented by a labor organization, as well as National Labor Relations Act law, Banducci writes, but adds: “We do not believe a majority of our MKE hourly team members wish such representation at this time.”
But Rickman says his group has a petition signed by a majority of the workers. And even with the recent pay bump, he notes, the firm is not following the county’s living wage ordinance. Which would require the firm to be paying the workers $13.01.
This level of pay follows from a 2016 amendment to the living wage ordinance. It was built around the Milwaukee Bucks arena development, and created a community benefits agreement with a path to a $15 an hour wage-floor for hourly workers at companies doing business with the county.
SSP America has a contract with the county that is not up yet, which may account for their not changing the wage. Before the bump to $12.35, workers were making roughly $8 to $10 an hour, Rickman says. That pay bump, he says, came after his organization became involved with workers at the airport.
Rickman believes his organization has a legal case for compelling SSP America to follow the ordinance, because there is language in the contract between SSP America and the county that says the firm will follow all federal, state and county laws. And the living wage ordinance is one of the county laws, Rickman notes. Though he concedes this is an issue that might have to be decided in court.
“Look, what’s good for the Milwaukee Bucks is good for the Milwaukee County Airport,” Rickman says.
These jobs covered in the Bucks agreement are largely the same jobs that workers for SSP America perform at the Milwaukee airport, the nine supervisors wrote in their letter. Moreover, the agreement was also signed by MASH and a company it negotiated with, Levy Restaurants, which in turn is owned by the same multinational corporation as SSP America — Compass Group.
In their letter to SSP America, the nine county supervisors called for negotiations with MASH and wrote, “Entering into a ‘Bucks-style’ agreement with MASH, as petitioned by a majority of the SSP America employees at the airport would tell us, County policy-makers with oversight and governance of the airport, a great deal about your company and operation.”
Specifically, they noted, it would show they value their workers, and “respect the public with an interest in the use of County-owned resources as well as County policy-makers with an interest in this matter.”
Right now, relations between labor and SSP America stand at the precipice. MASH has been resolute that workers allied with them will start unrest at the airport if SSP America does not come to the table. And SSP America shows no signs of doing so. Meaning we may soon see strikes or picketing at the airport.
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