Effort to privatize Lambert Airport raises concern for union leaders

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"IT'S NOT GOOD FOR WORKERS for this to happen," UNITE HERE Local 74 President Kevin McNatt said of efforts to privately lease and manage Lambert Airport. – Labor Tribune photo

By TIM ROWDEN

Editor

While President Donald Trump’s long-awaited and shockingly underfunded and non-specific infrastructure plan appears to push toward privatization of public works assets, the effort to privatize of St. Louis Lambert International Airport is raising concerns for some in the Labor Movement, particularly with UNITE HERE Local 74 and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, whose members’ contracts could be in jeopardy should the push toward privatization move forward.

“It’s not good for workers for this to happen,” said Local 74 President Kevin McNatt told members of the St. Louis Labor Council’s Executive Board last month. The Labor Council has not taken an official position on the privatization effort but is monitoring the situation.

As proposed, current contracts would be protected if the airport is privatized, but once those contracts expire, McNatt says “they’re done.”

“There’s no upside for the workers that work at the airport,” he said. “There’s no company that’s going to come in and say ‘You’re going to make more and get better benefits. We don’t think it’s good for us. We don’t think it’s good for the city. We don’t think it’s good for anybody.”

Local 1 Vice President Nancy Cross agreed. “It’s a quick fix for the city” to get the airport in the black, Cross said, “but it’s not a sustainable policy.”

Cross said a private operator could conceivably raise prices at the airport without the city receiving any benefit.

“They’ll be getting their money, and the city won’t necessarily be getting that money back,” Cross said. “Midway Airport in Chicago started this process and they stopped. It comes down to, what kind of city do we want St. Louis to be, and what are the alternatives to get the city in the black?”

"IT'S A QUIUCK FIX for the city" to get the airport in the black, SEIU Local 1 Vice President Nancy Cross said of the privatization effort, "but it’s not a sustainable policy." – Labor Tribune photo

Don Cohen, executive director of the Los Angeles-based In The Public Interest, a nonprofit think tank that studies the privatization of public assets, also spoke to the Labor Council last month.

Cohen said operators in public-private partnerships, whether in airports, schools or prisons, often sell the concept by saying they can operate the facilities cheaper and better.

“The devil is in the details,” Cohen said.  “What are you going to spend less money on? Usually, it’s people and services, lower wages and lower benefits. There’s only certain ways they can make money. People forget that when they start selling public-private partnerships.”

For now, it looks like the privatization effort is moving forward.

Grow Missouri Inc., a nonprofit funded by Missouri’s most prolific political donor, retired financier Rex Sinquefield, performed much of the initial research favoring private leasing and management of the airport. Not surprisingly, Grow Missouri is part of the consulting team the city awarded a contract on Jan. 26 to study the feasibility of the proposal.

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