Wages at MSP Airport, largest metro employer of East Africans, focus
of anti-poverty drive
Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
Updated: April 8, 2015 - 8:47 PM
New report shows that many East Africans in metro area work at MSP but
still live in poverty.
Abdi Ali says he hasn’t gotten a real raise in eight years.
The Somali immigrant started working as a cart driver at
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 2007, earning $6.25 per
hour. Now he earns $9 an hour, but that’s not enough to keep up with
rent increases he’s faced and the cost of college classes he takes.
“It’s stressful because I don’t have benefits, I don’t have vacation
days, I don’t have health care,” Ali said. “Sometimes you think, why
am I working like this?”
Wages at the airport, the Twin Cities’ largest employer of East
African immigrants, have become a key issue for activists in the local
Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities.
Most Somali immigrants in Minnesota live in poverty, which also is
rising among the state’s more affluent Ethiopian community, according
to a new report promoted Wednesday by the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU).
The union argues that the fate of East Africans in Minnesota is
inextricably tied to wages at the airport, and that the Metropolitan
Airports Commission should require all subcontractors at the airport
to pay workers a minimum of $15 per hour.
More than 2,500 East Africans work at the airport; nearly three out of
five foreign-born workers at MSP are from Somalia, Eritrea or
“There is a crisis of poverty in Minnesota’s East African communities,
and with the MSP airport as the number one employer of these
communities, the Metropolitan Airports Commission could make an
immediate and powerful impact on this issue,” said report author Eden
Yosief, a social justice research fellow at the Center for Popular
Democracy who also works for SEIU. “Changing the lives of East
Africans in Minnesota is going to start at MSP.”
The report is the latest move in a concerted campaign by the SEIU and
its allies to push up wages for workers at MSP, considered one of the
nation’s best airports in customer surveys and by several financial
The SEIU is trying to organize cart drivers and wheelchair assistants
and has organized protests at the airport. Gov. Mark Dayton in
February appointed Ibrahim Mohamed, a cart driver from Rosemount, to
the Metropolitan Airports Commission. And Dayton last month called for
a $10 minimum wage for airport workers.
The airport’s competitiveness would be damaged and its status as a
major hub challenged, says Ben Gerber, a labor policy analyst at the
Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, who argues that higher wages for
airport workers will drive up the cost of flights through MSP and
shunt traffic to cheaper hubs.
“People pick their tickets based on prices and convenience,” he said.
“If flying through Minneapolis is more expensive, they won’t pick it.”
Since roughly 50 percent of passengers passing through the airport are
connecting to another destination, the effects of higher airport costs
would be dramatic, Gerber said. “I think there’s a real threat there,”
The Metropolitan Airports Commission, in a statement, said it has
taken steps to ensure vendors “compensate their employees fairly” and
has long had a strong relationship with labor. Employees like Ali work
for contractors whose wages the commission does not control. However,
the MAC board will discuss wages over the next couple of months.
“We would hope a modest pay increase for the lowest paid workers would
not impact air service at MSP, but that is a question only the
airlines can answer,” said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the airports
The airport is a natural fit for immigrants from East Africa, said
Ali. It is a short light-rail ride to the Cedar-Riverside
neighborhood, where he lives, the work is indoors, and he and other
immigrants think of airport work as a vital vocation with a certain
level of prestige.
Asked why he has continued to work for a company that pays poorly, Ali
said the reason has changed over the years. At first, he thought he
couldn’t find a better job. “It was 2008, remember,” he said. “People
lost their jobs. I didn’t think I could get another job at that time.”
He didn’t have a car, he lived in Cedar-Riverside, was working
part-time and he was taking college classes in social work, so it was
difficult for him to imagine finding something better. Now he’s still
finishing school, the job is familiar and he’s gained some competence
“When you work somewhere for a long time, and you have friends and you
know everything,” he said, “it’s hard for you to look for something
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: _at_adambelz
Received on Thu Apr 09 2015 - 05:16:21 EDT