Here's what Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down" (which was made into a movie of the same title), wrote after visiting the Twin Cities: “At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last week, I was emerging from a concourse when three electric carts driven by Somali airport workers whizzed past, startling me. Many Somalis have a distinctive look — very dark skin, slender frames and broad, roundish foreheads — and, to those who know a little about Somalia, it should not be surprising to encounter them at the Minneapolis airport.”
Mark’s characterization is accurate and puts into words attributes Somalis use to identify each other. When I was an undergrad student at the University of Minnesota, I participated in a study abroad program in Beijing, China. Two of my Somali friends participated as well. The three of us stopped for coffee in a Beijing Starbucks one afternoon and immediately locked eyes with a man with Somali attributes. He was reading the newspaper in Chinese. I was convinced we had found a fellow Somali. But my friends argued that finding a Somali in Beijing reading the newspaper in the local language was equivalent to finding a needle in a haystack. No way they said. Our debate was ended when the man greeted us in Somali.
Compared to Beijing, finding and positively identifying a Somali at the Minneapolis- St. Paul International Airport (MSP) is not very difficult. Many Somalis are employed there.
An estimated 1,000 Somalis work at the airport, performing functions critical to the operation while earning $8 an hour and often with no access to healthcare. Their jobs range from driving taxis to rental car services, luggage handling and facility services.
At one point, more than 900 Somalis drove taxis at MSP. The story of Somali taxi drivers refusing to transport clients with alcohol became national news in 2007.
Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC), the governing body of the airport, adopted a new policy of punishing taxi drivers who refused to transport travelers with booze. The policy called for a 30-day suspension for the first offense and progressively became more severe, up to license cancelation.
One of the tragedies of this episode was that an opportunity to clarify an operating approach for the airport was squandered. The issue was incorrectly framed as a clash of civilizations. It was really a labor dispute.
Most major metropolitan airports approach taxis in two ways. One way is that the airport's governing body contracts with large taxi firms, and the drivers are direct employees of those firms. The other approach is taxi drivers are independent contractors. Independent contractors usually have the benefit of work flexibility and reprieve from excessive regulations.
MAC takes a hybrid approach to airport taxis. Drivers are considered independent contractors but regulation is immense. MAC controls where drivers work and how their work is done. Vehicles go through expansive inspections. Inspection procedure dictates minute details such as where to place an operating permit inside the vehicle.
MAC used to restrict the number of taxis operating at MSP. This allowed taxi drivers to earn a better wage. But when MAC removed that restriction, it led to more taxis operating at the airport. More taxis meant fewer fares, forcing many taxi drivers to quit.
Today there are only a few hundred Somalis driving taxis at MSP. Many former drivers moved into driving commercial trucks or transporting goods across America.
Somalis also work in the rental car services at MSP. They vacuum and wash rental cars. Most workers at the rental car services earn around $9 an hour with steady hours, some with access to health care (often with a steep employee contribution).
Approximately 200 Somalis work for ABM providing facility services. Somalis working for ABM are members of Local SEIU 26. Union representation has enabled labor disputes between ABM and its employees to be resolved at the bargaining table rather than in the media (as in the case of the taxi drivers).
Many Somalis work in the ground crew which includes luggage handlers, cabin cleaners, restroom attendants, airline fuel fillers and electric cart drivers. These ground crew workers have seen a lot of changes in recent years, including wage regression.
Ground crew workers used to earn above minimum wage with benefits but they lost wages and benefits when Delta acquired North West Airlines. Delta established its own subsidiary called Delta Global Services (DGS) and contracted to provide ground services.
DGS started hiring employees at minimum wage, attracting primarily new immigrants. Luggage handlers, for instance, tend to be older and speak little English.
Those who speak English work as cabin cleaners, electric car drivers and wheelchair operators. Regardless of English ability, members of the ground crew earn $8 an hour without healthcare benefits.
Ground service contract periodically comes up for bidding. Competition is usually DGS and AirServ. AirServ won the last round with steeper labor savings for Delta.
In February, an electric cart driver, perhaps one of the three who startled Mark Bowden while whizzing by, was appointed to the MAC. Governor Dayton appointed Ibrahim Mohamed to the broad. Ibrahim Mohamed pledged to bring voices of airport travelers and workers to the board. Mohamed will certainly need a big support on this goal, but an ordinance for better wages for all MSP employees would be great start.
Jamal Abdulahi is an independent analyst. He writes about politics, economy and Minnesota's Somali-American community. He also blogs at minnesotacivic.com.