The cold wind bit my cheeks as I gratefully pulled on an SEIU purple stocking cap emblazoned with an image of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “Destination: JUSTICE.”
This was our way to commemorate Dr. King. My wife, daughter and I joined a rally for airport workers who want to form a union with 32BJ, an affiliate of SEIU. About 100 of us gathered under the bright sky near the King Memorial on the National Mall.
Yikes, it was cold! We stamped and hopped around for warmth while workers took turns speaking nervously at the microphone. We heard from sky cab drivers and the workers who push wheelchairs for passengers at DC National Airport. Neither of those jobs pay the federal minimum wage, because they’re classified as tipped workers. I was shocked to learn the minimum in Virginia for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour!
Every few minutes, chants broke out: “What do airport workers want? $15 and a union! What do airport workers want? $15 and a union!” and “If we don’t get it, SHUT… IT… DOWN! If we don’t get it, SHUT… IT… DOWN!”
Some workers work three full-time jobs, and don’t even have enough time to go home after work. They just sleep at the airport and wake up for the next shift!
“We’re busted and disgusted! We’re tired of working with no healthcare and no benefits!”
One of the speakers was a grandmother who spoke from cards so she wouldn’t get too much stage fright. She said she cleans airplane cabins for $8 an hour. Her pay barely covers her bus fare to work. She’s only able to get enough to eat with help from Food Stamps. She wishes she could provide for her kids and grandkids. That’s why she wants a union.
DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton told the crowd that Dr. King had gone to Memphis for the same reason we gathered today. The wind was cold. She declined a hat, joking that she was too vain to mess up her afro. The crowd loved it.
Then we all marched past the King Memorial, where we stopped and sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” led by Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ.
We marched to Independence Avenue, stopping occasionally to pray and chant, until we reached the corner on 14th Street SW.
“Everybody down!”the organizers hollered. We all sat down in the middle of the intersection. There was a long prayer. The 14th Street light turned green, but nobody moved. The traffic backed up. After a few minutes, we all rose together. Dozens of airport workers boarded busses to get to go back to work.