The workers cheered as representatives from about a dozen major airport contractors stood and announced their support for joining the union in a packed room at Riverside Church in Harlem. About 4,000 workers signed cards expressing their wish to join the 32BJ Service Employees International Union, including baggage handlers, security officers, cabin and terminal cleaners and others.
"No longer can we tolerate poverty conditions," said the union's president, Hector Figueroa. "And no longer can we remain invisible."
At the front of the room, beneath a wide stone archway, sat several union workers who were counting the number of signed cards. One wall was covered with a list of workers' names.
About 12,000 contracted passenger service workers are employed at John F. Kennedy Airport, La Guardia and Newark Liberty. About 2,300 of them belong to other unions. Another 1,000 workers belong to 32BJ and are employed by other contractors with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports.
Workers are taking a step toward receiving a living wage and health benefits by voicing their support for the union, Figueroa said. He pointed out that many contracted workers who perform the same duties at the city's major airports are paid unequal wages depending on which contractor they work for.
"We're with you because we know your cause is just and it is right," said former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who donned a purple baseball cap with the union's name printed on it.
Prince Jackson, who works for the airport contractor Air Serv, said he had been fighting for this day for three and a half years.
"Our fight is far, far from over," he said. "My co-workers and I will keep fighting until Air Serv gives us a fair contract."