Ramp Rats' Revenge

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

Jorge, a big, ruddy-faced ASIG ramp supervisor, looks forward to that time with some emotion. Jorge came to Miami from the southwest of Cuba with his mother and teenage son about five years ago, and he lives with them and a new wife in a cramped but immaculate two-bedroom Little Havana walkup. Starting as a ramper in 2000, Jorge quickly worked his way up to his present position, where he now earns $8.25 per hour. Thus the living wage ordinance won't make a huge difference to him, but he's convinced a general improvement in the pay scale will be a small step toward dignity for his co-workers. For a long time, Jorge has been angry about the working conditions on the ramp. "I keep my mouth shut because I need this job, but my heart hurts," he admits, tapping his barrel chest with his right fist. "The things I have to witness shouldn't be happening here, in the greatest democracy in the world."

It's not so much the stealing. "Now that I'm a supervisor, it's too risky for me to allow it," Jorge says. "But back when I was a lead [higher-ranking ramp agent], I'd see someone stealing and I'd just walk away. Or I'd tell him, 'Come on, I don't want to call the police, you know you're not supposed to be doing that.' I refuse to call the police. I feel bad because I know it's wrong, but an extra $20 every few days can make a lot of difference to these men. The problem of stealing is completely out of hand. They feel they're entitled to take as much as they can, and I can't blame them.

"But that's not what truly bothers me," Jorge hastens to add, both fists now in the air. "What's worse is the abuse -- physical, verbal, and economic. Because the ramperos don't know English and they don't know anything about U.S. labor laws, and they don't know their rights, [supervisors and managers] treat them like dogs.

illustration by Jordan Isip
illustration by Jordan Isip

"Because of that they treat them like dogs! Chico! They call them names, they threaten them. I heard a supervisor yelling at a rampero, 'Apúrate! Te voy a patear.' [Hurry up or I'll kick you.] They have to take this humiliation and keep working in the sun and heat, and in the rain, hour after hour. They don't get breaks, they don't even give them water to drink during their shifts. For $6 or $6.25 per hour. And that's why I really don't care if they steal. I truly believe when that [living wage] law starts, and when they start treating them like human beings, they'll have some self-respect, they'll do their jobs better, and they'll stop stealing."

Leo doubts the stealing will ever stop completely. "It's always going to happen," says the ramp worker in his mid-fifties, also a Cuban immigrant. "They do it because they don't make any money but they also do it because they get used to it. It's like they get bored if they don't find stuff to steal. They rob and then show everyone else. I've been sitting in the [ASIG] office, and I'll see guys come in and unload stolen stuff into their lockers. Some of them have two or three lockers. And I was thinking: The same guy who takes a $5 bottle of perfume or a pack of cigarettes -- it would be easy for a terrorist to pay this person $500 to put anything in a suitcase."

Leo and his wife live in a one-bedroom apartment in a Fifties-era converted motel in Allapattah, where visitors sit on worn furniture set on wood blocks. He takes the bus to work. Leo was injured on the job about a year ago. All the ASIG rampers interviewed for this story say they're regularly required to lift suitcases weighing far over the 60-pound limit they are cautioned during training not to exceed. And Leo lifted hundred-pound bags for months before two discs in his lower back ruptured. But getting effective treatment for the injury was harder than lifting overweight suitcases. He was sent to a clinic, examined by a doctor, and sent home with pain medicine and instructions to rest. But after a month, desperate for money and not having received any checks from the state workers' compensation department (he would eventually get some workers' comp payments that didn't cover all his lost time), Leo went back to work. He asked to be assigned to lighter duty, but he says his supervisors still ordered him to perform dangerous tasks. After six months the company's insurance wouldn't pay for more medical care. So he decided to enlist the help of an attorney specializing in workers' compensation. "After I got a lawyer they sent me to the worst jobs," Leo alleges. "I'm still in pain and I don't do as much as I used to. But I've got to keep working."

And he has to see guys like Juan who usually get sent to the bigger jets (which are reputed to carry correspondingly better cargo) and occasionally even leave work for hours at a time while still clocked in, all thanks to a symbiotic relationship with a supervisor or two. "The ramperos give [stolen] stuff to the bosses so they're on their side," concedes Juan, a young, grinning Honduran. "They let them punch in and then leave and come back several hours later. A lot of guys figure why waste their time [working] for six dollars."

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