The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

O’Hare Workers Confront Wage Theft

Mar 25, 2024

On February 13, over 500 flight attendants from United, American, and Southwest Airlines picketed outside O’Hare Airport demanding higher wages and a halt to airline stalling tactics in ongoing contract negotiations. For years, flight attendants have been working under outdated terms of expired contracts. This was one of many coordinated protests organized by unions representing flight attendants at airports around the country.

One of the key issues is the “free work” flight attendants are required to perform. Flight attendants only get paid when flights are in the air. As a result, they are unpaid during boarding, during delays, and while in other cities awaiting return flights.

Flight attendants are especially angry about unpaid work during the boarding process. Prior to departure, they are expected to help customers load luggage in overhead bins, answer questions, deal with unruly customers, manage on-board pets, clean baby diapers, clean up vomit, and handle masking concerns (which remains an issue even post-pandemic).

One research company estimates that across the industry refusing to pay during boarding cheats flight attendants out of over $700 million per year!

Stolen time is a hot issue for other O’Hare workers as well. Many are required or pressured to use personal time to complete on-line training, or to obtain the tools and equipment they need at the start of their shifts.

For example, baggage handlers need tractors (motorized vehicles) to do their job, but there’s always a shortage of working tractors. Management fails to ensure they are readily available, and they are often scattered around the airport. As a result, the task of finding a tractor falls on the worker. Frequently, workers feel compelled to get to work early so they can search the airport for a tractor to use during their shift. Once they locate one, they need to make sure it is in working order and fully charged or fueled prior to the start of the shift.

United ramp workers who work in bag rooms on conveyor systems need to verify their work area is equipped with baggage carts and cans. When management fails to ensure they are in place, it falls on the worker. Without carts and cans, the worker has nowhere to put the bags, and they fall to the floor, creating a disorganized mess and a high-pressure and unsafe work environment.

Many workers refuse to do the free work, understanding they may not be required to do it per existing labor contracts. But many others are under great pressure to do the unpaid work to avoid a hectic, disorganized, and pressure-packed regular shift that they know they’ll face if proper equipment is not available at the start of the shift.

All the hours devoted to gathering tools and equipment prior to the shift is time stolen by the airlines. An end to wage theft at the O’Hare requires a major airport-wide fight that unites all airport workers.