POWER founding convention Sept. 25, 2011, at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, 750 S Broad St. (Photo by John Bell, PICO National Network.)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Rondell Johnson, 22, formerly of Chestnut Hill, is just struggling to survive. He is just one of the many hardworking Americans working for minimum wage. Johnson, who works as a baggage handler at Philadelphia International Airport from 12:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., five days a week, lives in North Philadelphia with his 28-year-old cousin, who is on dialysis.

“I am barely paying the bills,” said Johnson, who has asthma. “I don’t have any benefits. Sometimes, I have to go to the hospital at night to get a breathing treatment and an inhaler. Whenever I have any kind of medical problem, I am forced to go to the emergency room because I make too much money to qualify for health insurance. My hospital bills just keep going up and up.”

As a service worker employed by a company contracted by the airlines at Philadelphia International Airport, he is not entitled to the 21st Century Living Wage Law, which requires all employees on city contracts to be paid a minimum of $10.88 an hour plus benefits. The city, however, does not hold contracted and subcontracted employers at the airport to this standard. The result is that thousands of airport employees work for poverty wages: $7.25 an hour with no benefits.

“I shouldn’t have to apply for welfare,” Johnson said. “I have a job where I am working full-time. I know plenty of people who are just sitting back collecting welfare. I am not asking for a handout – I am just asking for what’s fair and right.”

And that’s exactly why Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower & Rebuild (POWER) are asking residents to join them at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 21, at Deliverance Evangelistic Church, 2001 Lehigh Ave., to demand living wages for airport workers.

More than 4,000 religious leaders, clergy, residents and workers – including Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite, Jr. – are expected to attend. It is part of POWER’s “Building a City of Opportunity that Works for All campaign.”

Rev. Linda Noonan, co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, said even though the airport is far from Chestnut Hill and very few workers live in this area, residents should care because “the airport could be our city’s best weapon in the fight against poverty.”

“And that should matter to all the residents of Philadelphia,” she said.

Philadelphia’s airport is a major economic engine that generates more than $14.4 billion in spending.

But according to “Raising the Bar: Ensuring that Airport Expansion Lifts All of Philadelphia,” a new study released by Fight for Philly, the airport’s low-bid contracting system for airline subcontractors allows profitable companies to force workers to live in poverty.

The lease agreement that governs subcontracted positions such airport skycaps, janitorial workers, disability service attendants, baggage handlers and thousands of other airport workers expires on June 30.

David Koppisch, a member of Saint Vincent de Paul Church in Germantown, said POWER is demanding that the new lease agreement provide employees with a minimum wage of $10.88 an hour, access to health benefits and first-source hiring.

“First source hiring is something that other communities across the country have successfully advocated for,” Koppisch said. “It is a system that the requires the employer to look first at applicants that meet a certain set of criteria.”

For example, applicants in a low-income bracket from zip codes that are immediately adjacent to the airport would have a short “window of opportunity” before the job is posted.

Mary Laver, also a parishioner at St. Vincent’s, said that even from an economic point-of-view, “when people aren’t making a living wage – those wages aren’t going back into the economy. It creates a downward spiral that affects every aspect of people’s lives.”

Noonan pointed out that “when more residents of our city work in the living wage jobs that can be created with the proposals POWER congregations are bringing before the City Council and the administration, they will plow taxes back into the city, put more police on the street, more teachers in our schools and provide better services for all.”

“I believe that all of us, regardless of our faith traditions, are called to build a city of opportunity that works for all,” she said.

The Rev. W. Jarrett Kerbel, of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, said the campaign was an “opportunity for us to improve the lives of low-income workers receiving poverty wages.”

“We’re coming together to make real concrete change,” he said. “To me, it’s the beauty of a participatory democracy working. I feel very positive that people care about their neighbors and city so much that they put in a tremendous amount of hours to plan and arrange this event.”

Antony Dugdale, a member of Second Baptist Church in Germantown, said that no matter what your own personal experiences are, “we all should be standing up and speaking out for better jobs for the entire city.”

It’s not about anyone of us,” he said, “it’s about the entire city of Philadelphia and building a city where everyone has access to good jobs.”

Rabbi Linda Holzman, of Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxborough, said, “We see God as the power that leads towards justice and toward building a more just world, and that means that we must work together to transform the social and economic policies that are impacting our city – we have POWER in Philadelphia and we’re going to show it on April 21.”

Imam Abdul Halim Hassan, of Masjidulah in West Oak Lane, said, “Our power comes from our diversity.”

“We can’t be separate from the world – we have to be part of the solution,” he said. “POWER seeks to bring social justice to all people in Philadelphia, regardless of their race, religion, creed, ethnicity or whatever. We breathe the same air and live in the same world. It’s really not about race, religion or economic status. It’s about justice. What’s right and what’s fair.”

For more information about POWER or the demonstration, go to www.powerphiladelphia.org or call 215-232-7697.

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