Abdi Ali spoke at a rally outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 2014. After years of protesting, airport workers will see the first raise toward $15 an hour on their next paychecks. Credit: SEIU Local 26

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Abdi Ali, 34, used to drive travelers in a cart at Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport. During the 13 years he worked at the airport, Abdi fought for an increase in wages. He spoke at protests, attended meetings with airport commissioners, and encouraged his wary coworkers to take action.

“Most of our people don’t know what the rules are,” Abdi, a Somali American, said of his coworkers, most of whom also have East African backgrounds. “They come from countries where they didn’t have rights, let alone know what their rights are.”

So Abdi, a father of four from south Minneapolis, joined the Service Employees International Union Local 26 (SEIU) Local 26 to advocate for better working conditions. In the last four years, his focus had been on securing a $15-an-hour wage for workers at the airport. 

Abdi’s 13 years as a driver and an organizer paid off. Workers will see the first raise toward $15 an hour on their next paychecks. The Metropolitan Airports Commission, the governing body at the airport, unanimously voted in November to pass this ordinance. 

The hourly wage increased from $11 an hour to $13.25 on January 1. Workers will see the next increase to $14.25 this summer. By July 2022, workers will make $15 an hour, the now-standard minimum wage in Minneapolis.

Along with a pay raise, airport workers also got two religious holidays off: Eid (twice a year) for Muslim workers and Fasika for Ethiopian Orthodox workers. Abdi said he previously needed to find someone to cover his shift if he wanted to spend Eid with his family. When he couldn’t find anyone, he had no choice but to work through the holiday.

SEIU Local 26 estimates more than 1,000 members will receive the increased wage. The new ordinance sets a minimum wage across the board for airport workers. Most of the airport workers impacted by the wage increase drive carts in the airport, clean airplane cabins and bathrooms, push wheelchairs, and accompany traveling minors. For immigrant airport workers in Minneapolis, this labor win comes at a time when airports across the country are laying off workers due to the economic impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry. (Abdi recently got laid off himself in the downturn.)

Working at the airport for $7.25 an hour

Misrak Anbesse, 58, also played a role in meeting with airport commissioners to advocate for the wage increase.  

Misrak got her first airport job cleaning planes in 2008. She made $7.25 at the time, she recalled. By 2011, she switched jobs and became a passenger service assistant. Misrak accompanies minors traveling without a parent, pushes wheelchairs, and helps passengers with disabilities get on or off a plane. 

Misrak walks almost 9 miles during an eight-hour shift and gets to interact with new people traveling through Minnesota. She said the tips aren’t great, but she generally enjoys her job.

At the same time Misrak switched positions, she also started lobbying with the airport commission, which comprises 15 members. Misrak and other organizers would meet with them individually and explain why they needed a raise. Misrak had a mortgage to pay on a home in New Brighton. Abdi had a houseful of young children.

According to Rick King, the chair of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, the idea of increasing wages to $15 an hour came up in meetings about three years ago. He said the commission began researching the idea a year later. 

Organizers say that their requests  consistently ran into contract changes. Workers like Abdi and Misrak, who drive cars and accompany passengers, are not employed directly by airlines—they work for subcontractors. The current contractor is Prospect Airport Services, an Illinois-based company that services 33 airports across the country. 

Abdi noted that his employer has changed about four times since he started working at the airport. Whenever that happened, the negotiation process would start over. 

Brahim Kone, the secretary-treasurer of the SEIU Local 26, said the airports commission negotiates the pay level with contractors. So that’s where they focused their attention.

“Knowing the kind of work that our members are doing at the airport, especially around COVID, this is a step in the right direction, but it was way overdue,” Kone said.

Airport commissioners are appointed by the governor. Kone said the current commissioners appointed by Governor Tim Walz have been more receptive to increasing wages than previous commissioners.

Two years ago, King said, the Metropolitan Airports Commission declared that it would agree to pursue an avenue in which workers could get a wage increase. But the pandemic delayed that work.

King said, “We had a lot of questions from people: Is this really the time to take it off the shelf and move it through?

The commission was supposed to vote to pass the new ordinance in January 2020. When the pandemic hit, they delayed the vote to November.

‘Even my family was saying, they’re going to fire you’

Misrak and other airport workers, with support from SEIU Local 26, continued their fight. Abdi said when he first started his advocacy work, a lot of his coworkers didn’t think anything could change. 

“Even my family was saying, They’re going to fire you,” Abdi said of his attendance at rallies. “I’m only one person. What about the others coming out? I can leave this job. But it’s going to be better for these other families—my people.”

In the end, Abdi did have to leave his job—though by no fault of his own. Despite pandemic layoffs, Abdi has now committed fully to working with SEIU Local 26, currently as a translator. 

“You come to this country to have education, healthcare, things that you need to be a human being,” Abdi would say to other immigrant airport workers. “But you won’t get it until you fight for it.”

Hibah Ansari

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.