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Airport Privatization Plan Earns ‘Overwhelming’ Opposition From Labor Council

Commerical planes parked at a St. Louis Lambert International Airport terminal.
St. Louis Lambert International Airport
Many workers at St. Louis Lambert International Airport are union members, which is one reason the Greater St. Louis Labor Council decided to weigh in on privatization plans.

This fall, St. Louis voters will consider a ballot initiative requiring city officials to lease St. Louis Lambert International Airport to any private entity willing to pay at least $1.7 billion for the privilege. The charter amendment is being pushed by consultants linked to conservative billionaire Rex Sinquefield, along with two entities: the St. Louis city chapter of the NAACP and the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council.

But voters would be wrong to conclude that labor unions support the privatization push. Last month, the Greater St. Louis Labor Council voted to oppose the plan. The regional labor federation is composed of nearly 25 labor unions representing 95,000 people.

Greater St. Louis Labor Council President Pat White explained on St. Louis on the Air that the vote followed significant discussion on the executive board. “In the end, we took a vote,” he said, “and it wasn’t unanimous, but it was pretty overwhelming ... we voted this time not to come out in favor of it, to be against it.”

Numerous union workers would be affected by privatization, White said. They include hospitality workers checking bags, maintenance workers, janitorial staff and tradespeople working for contractors.

Even so, the labor council had kept an open mind on privatization. When the city was still leading the process, executive board members sat down with potential bidders to share concerns and listen to their plans. “My motto really is, ‘You’re at the table, or you’re on the menu,’” White explained.

But the plan currently on the table, White said, has drawn more pushback. Some union members are worried about the way privatization could impact their jobs. Others are worried about Lambert being the first major airport in the continental U.S. to take such a step.

Others distrust the people leading the process — the president of the city NAACP, White said, “actively wanted ‘Right to Work’ and made it clear and made it public” in 2018, when labor successfully fought a referendum to block the Legislature from bringing it to Missouri. He also noted the history of bad blood between the carpenters union and other local unions, dating back 25 years.

Still others are concerned about the process itself — “trying to jam it through so fast,” in White’s words. The plan being put before voters this fall is designed to push a deal through by July 2021. That timing seems tied to a $44 million payout it would bring the consultants working on it. “It [was] very quick, and we weren’t at the table.”

White notes that the Greater St. Louis Labor Council’s vote included opposition to a slightly different airport privatization plan previously pushed by Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. Reed’s plan failed to gain the necessary traction at the Board of Aldermen, and the clock has now run out for it to be certified for the November election.

Despite its vote, White said, the labor council doesn’t plan a campaign to fight the November ballot initiative.

“We've got so many other things that we need to worry about that affect labor every day,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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