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'We Don't Know Their Plans': Airport Workers Fear Privatization Puts Jobs At Risk

Taken at SEIU Local 1 union on 06/25
Corinne Ruff | St. Louis Public Radio
Keyahnna Jackson is one of 7,000 employees at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. The union member, and many others, are worried about how their jobs could be impacted if St. Louis leases the airport to a private operator.

Keyahnna Jackson has a lot of questions about the potential lease of St. Louis Lambert International Airport to a private company.

“Will I still have a job? Are they bringing new people in? Would our rate of pay change? What’s going to be the difference?” she asked. 

She’s been working at the airport since January, cleaning bathrooms and hauling trash off the concourse during the overnight shift for Regency Enterprises Services. While Jackson said she’s attended a few community outreach meetings held by FLY314, the consulting group that’s working with the city on the privatization effort, she said she and her co-workers still feel in the dark. 

“We know right now we don’t feel like it’s the best thing for the workers because we don't know their plans,” she said.

Jackson is among 7,000 people who work at Lambert, with jobs spanning everything from air traffic control to food service. The effort begun in 2017 to explore a private lease of the city’s largest asset appears close to putting out Request for Qualifications, to seek entities that could eventually submit bids for a contract.

Yet details about how privatization would impact employees remain few, as a bevy of consultants work through the process with city officials. 

At a recent community outreach meeting in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood, FLY314 consultants told about 50 residents that jobs for city employees at the airport would not be impacted. They said an airport advisory working group is considering protections for union and non-union contract employees.

FLY314 Communications Manager Douglas Petty iterated several times during the meeting that it’s too early to know the impact of privatization.

“There is no decision that has been made at this particular time,” he said. “It is a process that is being gone through in order to be in the best position to make a decision that can best serve the area one way or the other.”

Up in the air

About a year ago, the city hired consulting group FLY314 to help officials explore privatization. Yet the group — which is footing the bill so far — is a part of Grow Missouri, a nonprofit funded by billionaire Rex Sinquefield, which pushed for the privatization effort. Critics of airport privatization have cited this and a lack of transparency in the process as red flags. 

St. Louis Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard, D-26th Ward, said she’s been fielding lots of questions and concerns about privatization since before she took office in April. Her northwest city ward is not far from the airport. 

“I still get a call, an email, a text or something daily from somebody saying, ‘Please protect us, please make sure they know how they feel, please listen to us, please don’t let this happen’ — you know whatever this is going to be.”

About 500 airport workers are city employees. Clark Hubbard said many of the people who have reached out to her are worried about losing the protections and benefits they have as civil service employees. 

Mayor Lyda Krewson said workers shouldn’t worry.

“There’s always change, but I don’t think anyone is going to lose their job over this,” she said. “Some people have expressed to me that they don't want to work for another company, they just want to work for the city. For those people who feel like that, we’ll find a spot for them in the city.” 

Krewson noted that there are over 1,000 open jobs in other parts of city government. 

The initial application to the Federal Aviation Administration’s privatization program was made near the end of former Mayor Francis Slay’s term in March 2017. Slay now serves as a lobbyist for Ferrovial Airports, a company that could bid on the airport contract.

Krewson has remained publicly neutral on whether the airport should be leased.

“I am not committed to privatizing the operation of the airport,” she said. “We’ve got to see what we get before we know.”

Such a move would require a vote of the Board of Aldermen, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment (which includes the mayor, the board president and the comptroller), a majority of the airlines that fly in and out of Lambert, as well as the FAA.

So far, efforts to take privatization to a public vote have remained grounded.

Unions worry 

Under a private operator, unions fear their contracts won’t be renewed.

Kevin McNatt is president of Unite Here Local 74, which represents about 400 food and beverage workers employed by HMSHost. While he’s been informed by FLY314 that any existing contracts would be honored, McNatt said there’s no guarantee once they expire. 

Contracts for the workers he represents are up this fall.

“The first place they’re going to try to make cuts is with the workers,” he said. “Our folks have good wages, good benefits, health insurance and pensions out there.”

Petty characterized that criticism as “speculative at best,” adding that unions are used to going back to the drawing board to negotiate. He said working with a private operator should be no different. 

“There may be other conversations about what happens going forward, but as things currently exist there is no consideration of coming in and destroying and blowing everything up,” he said.

Taken at Bishop Du Bourg High School on 06/27/19
Credit Corinne Ruff | St. Louis Public Radio
FLY314 Communications Manager Douglas Petty outlines the timeline for the process considering airport privatization at a recent community outreach meeting in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood.

Petty added that it wouldn’t make sense for a new operator to slash jobs.

“If you think about it from a practical perspective, if you were buying out a business, could you go in and eliminate everything? Because if that were to be the case then the whole business falls apart,” he said. 

Krewson told St. Louis Public Radio that it’s within the city’s control to require in the RFQ that bidders honor and renew collective-bargaining agreements.

Donald Cohen has studied infrastructure privatization efforts across the country, including the controversial privatization of Chicago’s parking meters. He’s the executive director of In the Public Interest, a national resource and policy center on privatization and responsible contracting.

Cohen warns that it wouldn’t be in the best interest of workers.

“They say we’ll do it cheaper and we’ll do it better,” he said. “If you’re going to do it for less, we always ask, 'What are you going to spend less money on?' You’re going to use crappy material, you’re going to pay workers less, you’re not going to clean as often. It’s all very concrete, so workers always lose.”

Under a private operator, unions also fear a loss of accountability measures that can keep out irresponsible contractors. 

Nick Desideri is a spokesman for SEIU Local 1, which represents about 100 housekeepers at the airport, including Jackson.

“You and I don’t know the best way to clean an airport. Who knows the best way to clean an airport is the people who clean the airport every single day,” he said. “It’s concerning that those folks in a private system would likely have less of a say on how to best keep our airport running.”

Last year, warnings from SEIU Local 1 ultimately helped sway the airport commission away from hiring a problematic janitorial services contractor, which had received complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for discriminating based on race

What’s next

From end to end, FLY314 pitched airport privatization as a 22-month process. That’s been delayed by at least two months, and details regarding the specifics of the updated timeline are hard to come by. 

During a recent airport advisory working group meeting, members went into closed session to discuss the status of the RFQ and negotiations with the airlines. Once the RFQ comes out, there will be a vetting process to see which bidders are qualified to lease the airport, which will take several months.

At that point Petty said FLY314 will have a bigger platform to host more public meetings and answer more questions. 

For now, Petty said he can’t speculate on the future. 

As he said repeatedly during a recent community meeting: “Everything here is if. Nothing is definite, other than where things are now.”

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

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Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.