Cynthia Hartsfield shares a name with the airport she’s worked at for 38 years–the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia.
But according to her testimony at a recent press conference, she and the other mostly Black women airport cleaners haven’t been treated like family.
“I make $12.10 an hour. I save two checks to pay my mortgage,” Hartsfield, a general cleaner, said at Wednesday’s press conference, where union members of SEIU Workers United demanded living wages.
“Can’t do nothing but keep the airport clean ‘cuz they tell us there’s nothing for us but to keep working,” Hartsfield added.
Essential airport workers are speaking out after the airport received nearly $350 million in federal stimulus funds, but did not receive any increase in pay. Instead, the workers – most of whom are Black women and many of whom make just above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 – received a thank you certificate and two $10 gift cards to airport shops.
Black union workers speak out
“It’s a huge turnover that they have at the airport, and it’s mainly because they are not paying enough money,” said Charlotte Bryant, a dispatcher and general cleaner who’s been working at the airport for two years.
The airport workers called on Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta City Council members – as well as candidates for Atlanta’s 2021 municipal elections – to act and speak out in support of a $15 minimum wage.
“Anything less than that, we cannot take care of our household. We cannot feed our family,” Bryant added at the press conference.
Mark Wilkerson is general political director for SEIU-Workers United. He spoke up at the press conference explaining how the major festivities and sports events all involve participants traveling through the airport. He reminded those in attendance of the civil rights struggles that took place in Atlanta and called on the city to honor the legacies of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Congressman John Lewis.
“I don’t know how they would take this, knowing that here in Atlanta today, in 2021 we’re still practicing institutional racism. And that is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to our union. It’s unacceptable to these folks. And it should be unacceptable to everyone in Atlanta,” Wilkerson said.
“We’re calling out and asking that the Mayor and City Council and all those folks that wish to seek these offices in the upcoming elections to come out and tell us how do you wanna go about helping fight this institutional racism right here, right in this city at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Something has to be done,” he added.
The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was ranked the second-busiest in the world in 2020, according to a report from Airports Council International published in April.
Airport’s public relations director responds
The Southern Region of SEIU Workers United has locals in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The Southern Region represents over 15,000 private sector members and retirees who work in airport cleaning, distribution centers, laundries, and food services.
SEIU representatives said the airport is owned by the city and the ultimate responsibility for Atlanta’s airport workers lies with the mayor and Atlanta City Council.
However, when The Black Wall Street Times reached out to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms asking if she supports the wage demands, a communications director for the airport responded instead. Andrew C. Gobeil is Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Hartsfied-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
“Please keep in mind that the workers are employed by a third party vendor – their salaries are set by the vendor (ABM) and not by the City or the Airport,” Gobeil told TheBWSTimes in an email. “The Airport’s General Manager, Balram “B” Bheodari, will sit down with representatives of the union next week to discuss their concerns.”
While city leaders may not be directly responsible for setting salary of airport employees, they are directly responsible for confirming the approval of and salary for the airport’s general manager.
Atlanta City Council voted in July to confirm General Manager Bheordari with a salary of $310,000–a $30,000 increase from his predecessor, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Atlanta suffers from severe income inequality
Despite the City of Atlanta’s slim Black majority population, and despite being led by a Black mayor, income inequality is a severe problem for its residents.
The average weekly earnings for Black residents is $3,000 less than that of White residents, and the median income for a Black family in Atlanta is roughly $60,000 less than that of White families, according to a report from the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative (AWBI).
“There is this perception, of course, that Atlanta is a ‘Black Mecca’ and that Black people are doing well here, however we know statistically that this isn’t the reality,” AWBI executive director Latresa McLawhorn Ryan told the Atlanta Business Chronicle in June 2020.
Meanwhile, several candidates have filed to run for Mayor of Atlanta, including Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and City Councilman Andre Dickens.
The Office of current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was once considered as a running mate for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on SEIU workers’ demand for a $15 minimum wage. When the Black Wall Street Times reached out to her office for comment, only Mr. Gobeil, the airport’s public relations director, responded.
Requests to speak with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport General Manager Bheodari were not immediately answered. The Black Wall Street Times will update this story as we receive more information.