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Seeking $15 wage and union rights, O'Hare airport workers vow to strike

Officials with the Service Employees International Union Local 1 said Thursday that about 500 workers have committed to strike on Nov 29. 

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    Travelers walk to their gates at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2015. Hundreds of O'Hare International Airport workers that are trying to unionize have voted to go on strike ahead of the 2016 Thanksgiving holiday.
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Hundreds of workers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, one of the busiest in the nation, are planning to strike on Tuesday, Nov. 29 for union rights and higher wages.

There was a possibility that the workers, mainly employed by private contractors as baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, janitors, and wheelchair attendants, would strike during the busy Thanksgiving travel week. But during a press conference at the airport on Monday morning, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union said that the group decided not to disrupt holiday travel.

"It was never their intent to disrupt travel," said the spokeswoman, according to CNN. "They do want to gain public support."

Some 500 workers, mostly immigrants, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, are calling for a $15-an-hour wage and the right to organize under the auspices of the Service Employees International Union. Chicago’s legal minimum wage is $10.50 an hour; the state’s is $8.25. The strike would not affect air traffic controllers and security screeners.

Tom Balanoff, president of the local chapter of the union, said that a walk-out could slow down operations, but wouldn’t shut them down. Workers are just trying to "get the powers that be to hear their voice."

The Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement that it expects no disruption in service.

Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert and economics professor at DePaul University in Chicago, also said that he doesn’t expect the strike to cause a massive disruption.

"This will be a mass headache, but a crisis it is not," he said.

The Chicago workers have previously accused their employers of cheating them out of wages, having filed complaints with the Illinois Department of Labor and the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, according to the Sun-Times.

Companies accused of stealing wages include: Scrub Inc. in Chicago; United Maintenance in Chicago; Prospect Airport Services in Des Plaines, Ill.; and concessionaire Lott Management in Frankfort, Ill.

This summer, about 1,000 workers in similar jobs and with similar demands working at Philadelphia International Airport planned to strike during the Democratic National Convention. That strike was called off, with negotiations still ongoing, USA Today reported.

Workers at other airports, including LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airports in New York, and in other sectors, including food service and retail, have also been fighting for higher wages. In fact, the O'Hare workers are part of a national day of protests planned on Nov. 29 of low-wage workers from fast food, home care, and child care industries in 340 cities. 

Some cities and states are taking the lead on raising wages instead of waiting for a federal law. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law in April that will raise the minimum wage for hourly workers in the state to $15, the highest statewide wage in the nation. Until then, California and Massachusetts had the highest statewide minimum wage at $10 an hour; Washington, D.C., is at $10.50. Cities including Los Angeles and Seattle this year passed $15 minimum wage. Oregon lawmakers plan to increase the minimum there to $14.75 an hour in cities and $12.50 in rural areas by 2022.

New York wants to gradually raise its $9 minimum wage to $15, starting in New York City in three years and then bringing smaller increases to other parts of the state. An eventual statewide increase to $15 would be tied to economic indicators such as inflation.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

[Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include new information.]

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