The strikers, mostly janitors, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and wheelchair attendants who work for private contractors at the airport, voted November 17 to strike. The exact dates are not yet known but will almost certainly cover the Thanksgiving holiday if a strike begins in the next few days, as union representatives say it will.
The workers have been trying to organize with the help of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 and are seeking a pay raise to $15 an hour and improved working conditions. Illinois’s minimum wage is $8.25 per hour.
"It is not their intent to disrupt operations, but to make their voices heard and have their concerns of wage theft, safety and working conditions to be taken seriously," SEIU Local 1 spokeswoman Izabela Miltko-Ivkovich told CNNMoney.
"They don't expect to shut the airport down," SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff said after the November 17 vote, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. "That's not what they’re trying to do." But "there will be disruption," he noted.
A Chicago Aviation Department spokesman said they did not expect any disruptions in service at Chicago's airports during the holiday. The department "expects every contractor to follow the law, and will aid the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection and the Illinois Department of Labor to take whatever action is necessary,” spokesman Owen Kilmer said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Chicago O'Hare airport was the fourth busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger boardings in 2015, according to the Airports Council International. Nearly 49 million Americans are expected to travel during the holiday travel period, defined as between November 23 and November 27, AAA predicts, with 3.7 million of them choosing to fly.
The striking workers are employed by Prospect Airport Services, AirServ, Scrub Inc. and the city of Chicago, CNN Money reported.
Transportation expert and economics professor at DePaul University in Chicago Joseph Schwieterman told the Associated Press that the strike "will be a mass headache, but a crisis it is not," noting that the city has a few days to come up with backup plans.
During the November 8 election, four US states voted to raise their minimum wage. Maine, Arizona and all voted to raise the wage to $12 per hour by 2020 and Washington State to $13.50 by the same deadline. New York, California and Washington DC have passed laws to raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next few years for most employers.