Late last year Miami-Dade County administrators announced that Miami International Airport workers would pay five dollars per month more for parking privileges, effective this February 1. No one seemed too concerned about the increase since it wasn't too steep, and, in any case, most companies doing business at the airport cover their employees' parking costs.
But Manuel Rodriguez was concerned. And the more he thought about that increase, the more irritated he got. A so-called ramp agent in the employ of Aircraft Service International Group (ASIG), Rodriguez had to pay for airport parking out of his own pocket. So did the approximately 150 other ASIG ramp agents, all of whom earn in the neighborhood of six dollars per hour. For Rodriguez it wasn't so much the amount of the fee hike but the hardship of having to pay for what most airport workers enjoyed as a perk, and which few people making just above minimum wage could afford in the first place.
Rodriguez thought about how punishing the job was, loading and unloading the cramped, smothering airplane cargo holds and attending to myriad other runway duties, all out in scorching sun and drenching rain. He thought of Fort Lauderdale-based ASIG's prestige in the aircraft industry, its contracts at 54 airports in North America and Europe to provide various support services such as baggage and cargo handling, fueling, cleaning, and maintenance. Yet while ASIG was reaping revenues of $141 million in fiscal 2000, grunts like Rodriguez were trying to pay their bills on $250 per week.
This past November Rodriguez decided to try something no ramp agent had done before (in Miami anyway): organize a protest. "It wasn't really the higher fee itself that caused me to act," explains the native of Colombia who, even with gray-and-white hair and a paunch, looks at least a decade younger than his 72 years. "But that was what motivated me in the first place to talk to people and try to change the situation. We have one of the hardest jobs in the airport, yet we can't even park our cars without problems. Everyone depends on us, yet they pay us una miseria" -- a pittance.
Unifying the ramp workers behind the cause wasn't easy, though, largely because of rapid turnover. Rodriguez had been employed at ASIG only two months when he began his protest; of the dozen ramp workers interviewed for this story, only two had worked there longer than six months. By all accounts Rodriguez was the only ramp worker, or rampero as the mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants call themselves, willing to complain openly to ASIG managers. While the others feared losing their jobs, Rodriguez, who says he was a unionized delivery driver in New York before moving to Miami a year ago, figured he was due to retire soon anyway.
In early December of last year, Rodriguez and other ASIG ramp agents decided to stage a one-day walkout to call for higher pay and a better parking arrangement. Before they had a chance to set a date, though, employees received a threatening memo, dated December 7, from Juan Barreiro, general manager of ASIG's Miami office, with a copy to the workers' "union representative." (Although a union would be expected to provide some support for the ramp agents, all the workers interviewed for this story said they had never been in contact with any labor representative and had no idea what the name of the company union is or what it does. Attempts to contact the union rep named in Barreiro's memo were unsuccessful. Barreiro did not return several phone messages.)
"IT HAS COME TO OUR ATTENTION THAT SOME OF YOU ARE PLANNING AN UNAUTHORIZED WORK STOPPAGE," read the memo, in English and Spanish. "BE ADVISED THAT ANY ACTIONS OF THIS NATURE ARE ILLEGAL AND IS NOT SUPPORTED BY YOUR LOCAL BARGAINING UNION. ABSENCES WILL BE SUBJECT TO INVESTIGATION RESULTING IN POSSIBLE DISCIPLINARY ACTION UP TO AND INCLUDING TERMINATION. GUIDE YOURSELVES ACCORDINGLY."
Rodriguez says he never received the memo, though he was told about it. But soon after it circulated, he changed his mind about walking out. Instead he typed a letter of complaint, in Spanish, addressed to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. About 50 of his co-workers added their signatures to his, and on January 9 Rodriguez sent the letter by certified mail.
"It is unjust that the airport administration does not recognize our difficult and heavy work, which consists of such tasks as getting on our knees to extract suitcases, which are heavier than the regulations allow, from uncomfortable cargo holds," the letter states. "We are treated like slaves and then obligated to pay $120 [every four months] for the right to park our cars, and on top of that, we are only paid $6 per hour and have no benefits."
ASIG, founded in 1947, employs approximately 4000 people worldwide, according to its Website. In Miami the company handles arriving flights on several carriers, such as Iberia, BWIA, and Alitalia. ASIG also operates a large fueling operation at MIA. While some airlines, like American, employ their own ground crews, including ramp agents, many outsource these jobs to ASIG. One complaint often heard from the ASIG ramp workers is that other companies employing ramp agents pay two to five dollars more per hour than ASIG.
Penelas's office referred the ramperos' letter to the county manager's office, which in turn forwarded it to the aviation department. A spokeswoman at aviation said the department didn't receive the letter until Friday, January 19, and that it would take approximately a week for the appropriate officials to respond. Mayoral spokesman Juan Mendieta cautions, however, that neither Penelas nor any public official can intervene in a case involving a private employer.
And in fact Manuel Rodriguez's private employment was terminated on Friday, January 12. Rodriguez and his co-workers, however, do not blame the firing on his complaints about parking or the letter to Penelas. But now the fledgling protest movement is leaderless and thus almost certainly doomed, a disheartening thought for many ASIG ramp agents. They point out the company will pay their parking fees after they've been there three years, but the physical demands of the job and the low pay conspire to limit the length of their employment. "I live with my mother and sister, and I have to pay the rent and lights," offers a three-month ramp veteran who didn't want his name used. "I can't do it unless I make a lot of overtime. But then I come home from work and I'm so exhausted I don't even eat; I just go to sleep."
That ramp agent and several others were waiting in their cars recently outside the ASIG offices at the airport, where the administrative employees work -- and where parking is free. Thus a curious scenario plays out each morning and afternoon before shift changes. A rampero drives up, stops his car in the road, and waits. Sometimes he'll get out and exchange conversation with others waiting in their cars. Then, when someone leaves the small, crammed parking lot adjacent to the ASIG offices, one of the waiting cars quickly pulls into the open space.
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"I can't afford to park [in the ASIG paid lot, approximately a half-mile from the offices]," asserts Lazaro, a waiting ramp employee who asked his last name not be published. Lazaro, like Rodriguez, is doing a young man's job at an advanced age, his late sixties. "I don't have any choice," he explains. "I can't pay $120 every four months. That's why we have to come here an hour before our shift starts and waste time trying to park. I don't know anyone who uses the company lot."
Many times a rampero will run out of time before clocking in and will have to park on the side of the street, one of the network of dead-end service roads that wind through the airport grounds. But workers who leave their cars on the shoulder stand a good chance of finding a parking ticket on their windshield when their shift is over. Many admit to having accumulated several tickets. "But I'll take the risk," said another employee who after three months has received three tickets. "I'd rather pay $18 than $120."
Still no one is willing to speak up. "Everyone is scared," admits a ramp worker, a Cuban immigrant who searched for a job for six months before landing at ASIG. "We came from one dictatorship to another. You wouldn't believe how they treat us. They're always watching us, telling us to do better, yet we can't even feed our families on what they pay us. You think, Oh, this is America; that doesn't happen here. But it does."