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Labor union, NAACP allege racial disparity in airport jobs

Labor union UNITE HERE claims that black workers are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs at BWI airport.
A Transportation Security Administration official walks by passengers at the Baltimore Washington International Airport. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)
A Transportation Security Administration official walks by passengers at the Baltimore Washington International Airport.

A survey administered by the labor union UNITE HERE has allegedly uncovered widespread racial inequality in the service jobs at Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport, the union revealed last week.

According to the UNITE HERE report, "[s]urveyed African-American workers at BWI were over six times more likely to work in fast food jobs and over three times more likely to work in back of the house restaurant jobs, such as dishwasher and cook." Although 59% of the surveyed workers were black, they reportedly make up 83% of the fast food workers and only 30% of the "front of the house" employees in sit-down restaurants, such as waiters and bartenders.

In response to the findings, local Baltimore officials, members of the clergy, and representatives from groups such as Maryland's NAACP chapter co-signed a letter [PDF] asking the state government's Maryland Aviation Administration to investigate. The company AirMall USA manages the concessions program at BWI, and the letter's signatories urged the state to end the company's contract "if it cannot demonstrate sufficient progress in creating a program that has a positive impact on racial equality in the State of Maryland."

Jacqueline Allsup, president of Maryland's Anne Arundel County NAACP, said she was "quite concerned about the undesirable reality of unequal job opportunities at the airport." That inequality, she said, could only contribute to greater inequality of wealth along racial lines.

"Of course, as bartenders and servers, you receive tips," she told msnbc. "So the wages are much higher for those individuals than for those who work in back of the house jobs" such as dishwashing.

UNITE HERE's report was the latest salvo in a multi-year campaign to organize BWI concession workers. Up until a decade ago, workers at the airport were members of a union, which negotiated with the single employer HMSHost (later replaced by BAA). But in 2004, Maryland opted to switch from having a single owner-operator run its food and retail services. Instead, the state retained AirMall USA to act as a private landlord for the airport, managing contracts with individual restaurant and retail store owners.

In effect, that means UNITE HERE can no longer negotiate with a single employer if it tries to organize BWI service workers, making the job that much more difficult. So its solution for the past couple of years has been to attack AirMall USA's business model, seemingly in an attempt to persuade airports nationwide to keep to a single-employer system. In 2011, the union's Airport Group project issued a series of reports under the headline "AIRMALLed: Failures of the Airport Concessions Developer Model." The following year, the union again began organizing BWI workers.

A statement from AirMall USA, which the German firm Fraport Group bought up earlier this week, said that UNITE HERE's allegations of racial inequities were "careless and unsubstantiated." Speaking to msnbc, AirMall Maryland vice president Brett Kelly called them "insulting and offensive," and noted his company's participation in the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (ACDBE) program, which is intended to encourage businesses owned by people of color and other economically marginalized groups. A presentation [PDF] which Kelly delivered at the 2014 Airports Council International -- North America conference said the company had achieved an ACDBE participation rate of over 43% at BWI.

 On the subject of unionization, Kelly said that AirMall Maryland is entirely neutral.

"We simply believe that's a decision that's left to the employees," he said. "We don't have a part to play in that transaction. So any group of employees in the airport that voted for union representation, we would certainly honor that in any way that's appropriate for our role."

UNITE HERE's data on alleged racial disparities at BWI didn't surprise Darrick Hamilton, an associate professor of economics and urban policy at the New School. Hamilton has done extensive research on what he described as "occupational segregation" in one 2011 report which he co-authored. Across industries and occupations, he said, "there is a clear bias" against black employees.

"The pattern of concentrations of black workers in low-prestige and low-wage occupations [in the UNITE HERE report] is consistent with larger patterns that we find," he said.

Citing feminist economist Barbara Bergmann, Hamilton suggested that widespread employment discrimination could negatively affect the wage prospects of even those people of color who manage to break into higher-prestige roles.

"If you're fortunate enough to escape the lower wage sector, say if you're fortunate enough to get an opportunity as a bartender or a server out front ... those workers, because of the implicit threat that the next job could be in a lower sector, have less bargaining power," he said.