Jose Ferrer, a 46-year-old security guard at Miami International Airport, had to make a choice when his joint pain became too much for medication: either get a blood test or an MRI scan on his hands and knees. His insurance plan covers only one blood test a year, though, and he'd have to pay more than $500 out of pocket for the additional MRIs, a luxury he couldn't afford.
That's why Ferrer says he joined nearly 100 of his co-workers Thursday in the park across from Terminal E of MIA to strike for living wages and working health insurance. The workers — all employed by a subcontractor called Ultra Aviation — do everything from handling baggage to working as security and skycaps. Their 24-hour strike runs through noon today.
The mostly Hispanic workers chanted, "¿Que queremos? ¡Justicia! ¿Cuando? ¡Ahora!" as they raised their fists wrapped around paddles with the logo of the Local 32BJ Service Employees International Union.
The workers say Ultra Aviation is violating Miami-Dade County's Living Wage Ordinance. Airport subcontractors are required to pay hourly wages of $12.63 with qualifying health insurance or $15.52 without health coverage. But Ultra Aviation workers have to take the lower wage and use insurance provided by the company — and they argue that health coverage is almost worthless.
Their "indemnity plans" pay a fixed amount for certain services; according to a complaint filed with the county in April, it offers $250 for an emergency room visit and $300 maximum per night in intensive care. The workers claim such plans don't meet county or Affordable Care Act standards and, therefore, the company has been cheating workers out of their salaries for years.
"This is a fight about what is health insurance and who should have it," says state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who is running in the Democratic primary for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen's seat in Congress.
Ultra Aviation has argued that the federal government and the airport have audited its plans several times and found them to meet legal standards.
The workers who've gathered to chant and bang drums this week say they know they will face blowback for their strike. Iris Castro, a Cuban immigrant and single mother of two, says when she returns to work, she might be fired.
"But we have to take risks because we have families," she says in Spanish, "and because we made the decision to come to this country to follow the rules that exist."
Ferrer alleges Ultra has a history of using intimidation tactics to stifle protest from its workers. The company has told them, "Think about what you are going to do," he says in Spanish. "You could lose your job or lose hours. Or they could give you the complicated shifts."
A Haitian band of trumpet players and drummers, wearing red and yellow headdresses, led the protesters in a parade-style march on the sidewalk across from the terminals. This past April, more than 70 complaints were filed by Ultra workers with the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department. The department has since granted Ultra a 30-day extension to provide the requested payroll records of its employees.
Ferrer says he and the other protesters are still optimistic they'll work out a deal to improve their health care. "I don't think that they will yield to our demands," he says. "It will be a long struggle, but we believe that we will win. We believe that we will be victorious."
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