Less than a day after they went on strike for increased pay and health benefits, passenger service workers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) returned to their jobs Friday, August 29th, after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa brokered a “cooling-off period” between the union representing the workers and their employers.

Hundreds of workers represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1877, including skycaps, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants and security guards, walked off their jobs at LAX August 28th, challenging what they call declining service and security standards at the airport. The union, which represents approximately 2,500 service workers at the airport, voted overwhelmingly August 20th to authorize a strike.

The workers claim that their employers, who are contracted by airlines operating at the airport, are providing inadequate training, leading to high turnover rates and safety issues. The union and employers have been in contract negotiations for months, and workers claim some employers have threatened supporters of the union.

In response to the strike occurring before the busy Labor Day holiday weekend at LAX, Villaraigosa brokered an agreement between the airlines, contractors and the union to help ensure efficient travel during the holiday. Under the agreement, striking workers can return to work for a planned three-week period without retaliation, while negotiations resume, the mayor said.

“In these difficult economic times for the airline industry and for hard-working Angelenos at the airport, we must come together to find a solution that meets the needs of workers and the airline industry,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “The parties have agreed to a cooling-off period effective immediately.

“I am urging the workers and contractors, with the support of the airlines, to come to a fair agreement that ensures quality services and keeps passengers moving safely and efficiently at the international gateway to Southern California.”

The strike was seen as an action that could have affected passenger services during the Labor Day weekend at LAX, which was expected to see about 825,000 travelers from Friday through Monday, August 29th to September 1st.

Airport Workers United spokesman Mike Chavez said the service employees saw the busy travel time as a chance to express their labor concerns with travelers.

“It’s one of the busiest weekends of the year and the workers saw it as an opportunity to talk to passengers about their concerns,” Chavez said of the strike date. “A lot of passengers shared those concerns and supported the workers.”

The strike was called after subcontractors G2 Secure Staff, Air Serv, Aviation Safeguards and Aero Port Services refused to make a proposal regarding wage and benefit increases, according to the union. The subcontractors service airlines such as American, United and Southwest and perform the bulk of security, janitorial and passenger service work at LAX.

Representatives of Aero Port Services had not returned phone calls at Argonaut press time seeking comment on the strike and “cooling-off period.”

Most service workers at LAX earn less than $19,000 on average per year, and 97 percent of airline contracted workers are without access to affordable family healthcare, Chavez said.

The union members have been calling on the contractors to improve the quality of service and security at the airport for a number of months, and they are hopeful that an agreement will be reached, Chavez noted.

“Over the last few months the workers have been putting forth these proposals for improvement and there hasn’t been a real response,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the contractors will negotiate in good faith and respect the workers’ rights and stand up for social security.”

The workers’ action was supported by the Reaching Higher Coalition, an alliance of passenger rights, faith, community and labor organizations that pledged to join them on the picket lines August 28th.

Union members said the wage and healthcare improvements called for by the workers would amount to a cost of less than 25 cents per ticket.

“In order to provide high-quality service to passengers, airlines need to invest in their workforce by providing adequate training, fair wages, and family health benefits,” said Carolina Briones, research director for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

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