In 2012, Onetha McKnight and her coworkers would vent about what seemed unfair about their jobs.

Their biggest worry, said McKnight, who had worked as a wheelchair attendant at Philadelphia International Airport for more than seven years, was job security. They could get fired for a seemingly small infraction — you took too long getting from one place to another, or you didn't answer the radio when called — and there was no way to fight it.

"You'd go into work being on pins and needles over the course of the day," McKnight remembered.

Then there was pay. McKnight, now a 62-year-old grandmother who lives in Southwest Philadelphia, made $5.75 an hour plus tips. But she wasn't allowed to tell passengers that she relied on tips as part of her salary.

Six years later, after numerous high-profile rallies and strikes, McKnight and her 1,500 coworkers — largely black and brown people living in Southwest Philadelphia who clean the planes between flights, who help retrieve bags off the carousel and take them to the street, who assist the elderly and disabled — finalized their first contract Friday, winning a minimum wage of $12 an hour, with an increase to $13.60 in two years. A new disciplinary procedure says the "punishment must fit the crime," and provisions are in place to protect their jobs if their employer loses its contract with the airlines.

The airport workers' victory is significant in this increasingly embattled era for labor, when union membership is at an all-time low and labor advocates worry that the Supreme Court will again rule against workers in a case that could allow public-sector workers to be represented by a union but not pay dues.

The workers, who voted to join SEIU 32BJ in April 2017, are part of one of the biggest successful union campaigns in Philadelphia in recent memory.

The only other union adding that many new members was the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, which grew by 3,000 health-care workers in 2016 at five hospitals. Most labor unions are not trying to organize new members right now, or not doing it at that scale, because it's expensive, time-consuming, and risky (case in point: the airport workers' campaign took six years from early organizing conversations to a first contract). Instead, most unions are focusing resources on protecting the rights of the members that they already have.

Here's what helped the airport workers get their contract.

The airport campaign was part of a national movement

From Dulles International in Virginia to JFK and LaGuardia in New York and Newark Liberty in New Jersey, low-wage workers are unionizing in what Bloomberg called "a rare bright patch" in the "bleak landscape for private-sector union drives." More than one-third of these kinds of workers are living in or near poverty, according to Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California-Berkeley, who said that raising wages improves worker turnover and passenger safety.

In the last two years, SEIU has added 11,000 airport workers. The union helped set a framework for how to organize subcontracted airline workers, while unions like Unite Here, which has organized food service workers at PHL, and the Communications Workers of America, have also organized airport service workers.

Workers rallied at the airport ahead of the Democratic National Convention in July 2016.
Matt Stanley for SEIU 32BJ
Workers rallied at the airport ahead of the Democratic National Convention in July 2016.

Being employed by a city subcontractor meant they could leverage the power of government

In May 2014, Philadelphia voters approved a "living wage" ordinance that compelled companies that had contracts with the city — including subcontractors of those companies — to pay workers $12 an hour, which SEIU and other advocates, such as interfaith group POWER, fought for. But subcontractors such as PrimeFlight Aviation and Prospect Airport Services, which McKnight works for, didn't follow the law until American Airlines, which controls 70 percent of the airport's traffic, wrote the pay-rate condition into its agreement with the city. (The same thing happened in 2017, when the contractors refused to bargain with the union, and American had to step in.)

The wage requirement in the airline's contract was a way to tackle what Jacobs calls "the relentless downward pressure on wages" that subcontracting produces. This way, airlines couldn't simply choose a contractor that paid its workers less and delivered services for a lower price. American spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said the airline chooses its subcontractors on more than just price — it's a matter of who can do the job the best, she said.

Alison McAfee, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, said the trade association's airline members "routinely contract with both unionized and nonunion entities."

The airport workers had high-profile supporters

Weeks after he was elected mayor, Jim Kenney joined airport workers when they walked off the job in November 2015, saying: "You have every right to collectively bargain with your employers. That's how this country was built. That's how this country is going to be." Council members came to the rally, too.

The clergy of  POWER also advocated for the workers, even getting arrested in July 2016 at a rally at the airport ahead of the Democratic National Convention.

McKnight, who is now a leader with her union and was part of the contract-bargaining process, said she had gotten discouraged over the course of the last six years. Many of her coworkers were scared of losing their jobs. When they saw someone get fired, it was hard to get morale back up.

But she was heartened by how, every time they had a rally, their employers paid attention. The companies were willing to talk to them. Little by little, McKnight said, "respect started coming around."