Workers Try to Organize In Airport, Get Fired
BY DAVID BACON
In These Times
FRIDAY AUG 10, 2012 3:00 PM
OAKLAND, CA—This city is supposed to be a union town,
but out at the airport, workers say they're getting
fired for trying to join one. The airport is
administered by the Oakland Port Commission, whose
members, appointed by the mayor, are mostly viewed as
progressives. The commission has passed a living wage
ordinance that not only sets a level much higher than
state or national minimum wage laws, but also requires
companies who rent space to respect the labor rights of
One of the workers fired recently is Hakima Arhab, who
says she lost her job at the Subway concession after
she complained about violations of the ordinance, and
because she and her coworkers are trying to join UNITE
HERE Local 2850.
Arhab told her story to Working In These Times:
I worked at Subway for a year and a half. When I got
the job there I thought that I would have a better
life. It should be a good job. I thought I'd have more
money, and be able to afford a few more things for
myself, and be able to send money to my home country,
because I have family there. When I started at the
airport I was getting $12.82 an hour, and then it went
up to $13.05.
Most people go through the airport and see us from one
side of the counter, but from our side it feels really
different. It turned out to be like working in hell.
When the airport was busy, there were huge long
lines—sometimes it seemed like 100 people. We had to
wait on them, and make the orders up at the same time.
Sometimes I thought I'd fall down from being so tired,
but I'd eat something sweet and go back to my job.
The schedule was always changing, and it turned out to
be just a part-time job. They kept cutting peoples'
schedules. Whenever we would hear that they were going
to hire someone, everyone would get scared because we
were afraid our hours would be cut. They'd hire people
and give them our hours.
Then they told us that if we worked two days in the
airport, we should work outside too. The owners have
many other Subway stores, so they'd pressure me to work
for them outside the airport. And it was a hard job
too. But I did it because I was scared that if I didn't
they would fire me from the airport job.
They expected me to work outside the airport if I
wanted a full time set of hours, but the work outside
was at a different wage. That work only paid minimum
wage—$8 an hour. They'd send me around to all their
stores. Sometimes I'd open one store, and then go close
at another one. I worked overtime, but they didn't pay
me overtime pay. They'd give you separate checks, so
you'd never get overtime pay.
I was very angry about that, but they refused to give
me a full schedule at the airport. They even wanted me
to work seven days a week, but since they wouldn't pay
overtime, at first I said no—that was too much. Many of
my coworkers did, though, because they couldn't afford
to say no. If you said no, then the owners would cut
your whole schedule.
So I also just shut up and worked too. And the worst
part was that sometimes when I'd work 50 or 60 hours,
they wouldn't pay for all those hours. They'd be short
an hour or an hour and a half.
I knew some other workers who work at HMS Host
concessions right next to us, and I knew they had a
union. Last spring I got very sick, but I still had to
work, because otherwise, how was I going to pay for my
rent or my food? I was so, so angry. One of them asked
me, "Hakima, do you want to speak to the union?" I told
her, "Yes, I want to do it." So I set up an appointment
with the union, and asked them to help us: myself, my
coworkers and all the workers who work hard in the
airport without benefits or sick days. That's how it
Finally I filed a complaint with the government, with
the Port of Oakland. But they didn't take it seriously.
It was like they were just playing around, and told us
it would take months to investigate. And I needed my
job, especially after I was fired.
On May 29 I took unpaid vacation, for 20 days. The
owner agreed that I could do that when I told her four
months before. But I filed the complaint before I took
the time off. She found out, because the Port gave her
the names of the people who complained.
So when I came back on June 19, she gave me a check for
the days I worked before the vacation. She told me,
"Hakima, you know, I'm very very slow right now. I
don't have any more hours for you." I told her, "No,
no, no. Don't play with me. I know you just took in
$5,500—you're making the highest amount ever here in
the airport. How can you tell me that?"
And just two days later, she hired another worker at
the airport. She just wanted to kick me out because I'd
gotten involved in the union, and I stood up and filed
a complaint. Because I was demanding my rights. That's
why she fired me.
Last week we had a rally out at the airport, to support
me and the other workers who have been fired. We even
had a chant in Berber. That's the home language of
North Africa, and I'm from a little Berber town in
Algeria. And the meaning is "We are Berber, we are
people who would rather fight and be fired than work
The union says several other workers have faced
retaliation as well. Isaac Kos-Read, director of
external affairs for the Port of Oakland, says the port
takes the complaints very seriously, but called it "an
open ended thing. It could take as little as a month or
as many as three months. We don't know." By now, the
port is investigating 15 complaints. Meanwhile port
security is writing up workers if they use their badges
to go into the airport to meet with employers or other
Nevertheless, "the port prides itself on providing
jobs, and union jobs. Over 70% of the jobs at the port
are union jobs," Kos-Read says. "We assiduously enforce
the living wage ordinance."
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