Faith groups come together to rally for living wages for airport workers

For Tara Russell, making ends meet is a daily struggle.

As a wheelchair attendant at the Philadelphia International Airport, Russell makes $7.25 per hour, which after taxes, only covers her monthly rent.

“So how do I survive? I don’t. I have to borrow $20 here, $20 there. I get $300 in food stamps, but I’m always broke,” said Russell on Sunday during a social justice rally inside Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia.

During the afternoon event – organized by Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild (POWER) – members of the city’s faith community called for living wages for the hourly employees of subcontractors at the airport like Russell.

Working class wages

POWER wants, among other things, for those employees to earn $10.88 per hour. The group is asking the city’s elected officials to help them reach that goal.

“We believe that the city of Philadelphia must stop promoting policies that favor the wealthy and start favoring the poor and disadvantaged,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, who heads Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxborough to the roughly 3,300 people seated before her. “We have learned, 30 years later, that trickle-down economics does not trickle down to those most in need.”

Reverend Cean James leads Grace Christian Fellowship, in Southwest Philadelphia, another of POWER’s 40 member organizations. He also teaches eighth grade at St. Raymond Penafort in Mt. Airy.

“Many of you grew up in a Philadelphia, years ago, where you could come out of high school having a skill you could then take directly to a job and you could have a job where you could feed your family,” said James. “Those days no longer exist.”

City Councilmembers Mark Squilla (D-1st), Maria Quinones-Sanchez (D-7th) and Kenyatta Johnson (D-2nd) all voiced support for POWER’s airport agenda – Quinones-Sanchez via a brief video message.

“If US Airways’ CEO can get a billion-dollar raise, surely we can find support in the budget for those that are out there working on the labor jobs in the airport,” Johnson, whose district includes the airport, said to applause.

Improving Philly schools

Sunday’s rally also focused on education and immigration reform, though POWER’s specific agenda on each is less defined at this point.

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, who leads, Kol Tzedek Synagogue in West Philadelphia, said the current state of schools reinforces the city’s economic divides.

“We believe that a radical overhaul of the school system is necessary to erase the three generations of miseducation provided to students in our city, said Grabelle Herrmmann. “We call for processes that make parents full, equal partners with the Philadelphia School District in decision-making about funding and about the direction of our local schools.”

The School District of Philadelphia is asking the city for $60 million and the state for $120 million to help fill the its $300 million budget shortfall. It hopes to make up the rest through labor concessions.

Against that backdrop, Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, who attended the rally, agreed to partner with POWER as it works to improve education in the city. During his remarks, he spoke of the need to petition the state for more money.

“Me, as one person, SRC, the Councilmembers, we can’t go up alone,” he said. “We need this kind of organization standing behind us when we’re fighting for resources for our young people. We need every single person whose here today also when we’re talking about investments in the future of the children of this city.”

Getting behind immigrant workers

POWER is also advocating for elected officials to help create pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the city. Speakers said in the absence of such reform, hard-working, honest Philadelphians are vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace and have to live in constant fear of deportation.

As the large sanctuary inside Deliverance Evangelistic Church emptied out, attendee Elaine Johnson said she was inspired by the event.

“I love how all of the areas have come together and decided that if we do this together and join as one that we can take this on. I just can’t find enough words,” said Johnson.

Following Sunday’s rally, residents plan to split into action groups to delve deeper into each of organization’s agenda items.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal