Ramp Rats' Revenge

Checking luggage? Think long and hard before answering yes to that question at MIA

Airlines themselves, not surprisingly, decline to release any numbers of thefts from passenger luggage or amounts of monetary losses incurred by victims and insurance carriers. Air traveler advocacy organizations concede luggage theft is a problem, but these days more passengers worry about security. (The ease with which suitcases can be tampered with and stolen by airport personnel with security clearances, however, has obvious potential for terrorists.)

"Airlines won't tell you anything," advises Michael Boyd, a Denver-area aviation consultant and former airline executive. "Trying to track down who's doing it or how -- it's very tough. There can be a lot of money involved. I remember a number of years back a major airline had a new station manager at San Juan; he went out of his way to stop luggage theft, and he got a shotgun in the face. It's a tough business. Ms. Gittens [aviation department director Angela] doesn't have a chance against these guys. You can't do away with petty theft as long as humans are handling baggage."

Several ramp workers estimate as many as 90 percent of their peers habitually lift valuables from baggage or are accomplices; in their interactions with each other, though, the practice is an unspoken assumption and practically never mentioned. There are long-time airport observers who insist that ramp rats as a species are unjustly maligned and that only a small fraction steal. But they're really referring to the unionized ramp agents employed by the larger airlines (such as American and United in Miami), who enjoy much better wages and job security than the ramp workers who are contracted out to other airlines by their employers, the airport service companies. No one argues that higher pay is a guarantee against theft, and even American rampers have been known to steal, but they don't work in a climate of lack and low morale that cultivates disrespect for the law.

illustration by Jordan Isip
illustration by Jordan Isip

At MIA four major firms -- "airport permittees" in legal jargon -- bid on contracts to provide a multitude of services to airlines, including ramp services, which range from cargo handling to towing, runway directing, and fueling of aircraft. Of the four contractors, Swissport pays its ramp agents the most, $7 to $8.25 per hour (benefits and parking included). ASIG, Evergreen, and American Sales and Management Organization (ASMO) all stick with $6 to $7 per hour and no benefits or parking. By contrast, American and Southwest ramp agents earn anywhere from $9 to almost $26 per hour, with enviable benefits.

And the differences between the two groups with the same jobs go deeper than wages. Not only are the unacculturated immigrants paid less, they're accorded less respect on the job. Not surprisingly, turnover is high. "They treat 'em like they're working in Nicaragua," charges Steve Roberts, international organizer for the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU). The TWU represents American's and a few other domestic airlines' ramp agents as well as those employed by Swissport (ASMO rampers voted a few years ago to be represented by the TWU, but the company has refused to negotiate a contract). "They work under constant harassment," Roberts goes on. "They're like slaves to some of these bosses."

Even with union representation, ramp workers in Miami are at a disadvantage, principally because the area's high rate of poverty and majority immigrant population combine to chronically depress wages. (This year the U.S. Department of the Census named Miami the poorest city in the nation; a 1998 study by the Florida International University Center for Labor Studies found 59 percent of Miami-Dade County residents and 65 percent of the workforce were foreign-born.) Like airport permittees everywhere, those at MIA face acute competition, intensified since the 9/11 downturn, and risk losing contracts with airlines to lower bidders. Thus if one permittee raises wages it could effectively put hundreds or thousands out of work. The approximately 300 Miami ramp agents for ASIG, a 50-year-old corporation that employs 5500 people at 68 airports worldwide, are nominally represented by Service Employees International Union Local 74, based in New York. But not a single ASIG ramper interviewed for this story knew the name of their union or had any contact with union representatives. And the local clearly has been unable to negotiate decent pay and working conditions.

That is one reason the Miami-Dade County Commission passed a so-called living wage ordinance more than three years ago. The law requires all companies doing business with the county to pay their employees a minimum of $8.76 per hour or $9.81 per hour if medical insurance isn't provided. So far many airport contractors have avoided complying with the ordinance, arguing it doesn't apply to them. In response a living wage oversight committee, established when the law was passed, has submitted amendments that the County Commission will vote on in the next few months; the new, more specific, language should leave no room for any of the intended targets to escape the law. Michael Ozegovich, a Miami labor union official and chairman of the oversight committee, predicts airport workers covered by the ordinance will receive raises beginning this October, when most airport contracts are up for renewal. "Hopefully this will finally move those people to the poverty level," Ozegovich remarks. "They'll be going from below poverty to poverty."

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