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What Airports Can Tell Us About Histories of Regional Development

Opening gala for the Central Passenger Terminal at San Francisco International Airport,  August 27, 1954.

In the runup to the 2022 holiday season, cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, janitors, security guards, and other workers walked off the job at fifteen airports in the United States to protest low wages and difficult labor conditions. Such conditions included growing pressure to speed up the pace of work and having to contend with irate passengers experiencing the delays and discomforts increasingly associated with air travel. Organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the coordinated action was also intended to support the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, developed in consultation with the SEIU and introduced earlier in the year by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. This pending legislation would establish a nationwide minimum $15 hourly wage for airport service workers and provide paid time off, health insurance, and other benefits.

This coordinated labor action was one of many that have happened over the decades at this nation’s airports. Many have been focused primarily on pay and benefits, with some in recent years linked to living wage struggles in particular cities or regions. Others, like those undertaken on behalf of Filipinx security workers in the wake of the post-9/11 Aviation Transportation and Security Act (ATSA), were focused on maintaining the rights of non-citizen workers to hold certain airport jobs. Earlier actions were sometimes focused on differently-framed cases of racial and gender discrimination, whether the result of the actions of employers or unions. In all cases, these struggles were responses to national and international trends in the experience of airport work as well as to regionally specific conditions.

Airports may seem like alienating “nonplaces”—as anthropologist Marc Augé put it—where we rush to make connections and spend long, monotonous, sometimes aggravating hours waiting for delayed flights. Indeed, many observers emphasize the uniformity of terminal spaces across the globe and the sameness of airport experiences, describing them as products of the homogenizing circulation of architectural styles, cuisines, and affective behaviors in a globalizing world.

But airports can also tell us a lot about the particular places where they are situated. The history of an airport can provide a useful lens for examining some of the complex, interconnected forces that have influenced the development of its region over time. Airports are, after all, complexly networked infrastructures whose operations over the years have, in regionally specific ways, drawn together and been made and shaped by the interactions among various groups of humans (workers, travelers, and others); municipal, state, and federal laws and regulations; economic flows of different scales; built urban, suburban, and exurban environments; and natural phenomena. Exploring an airport’s history can also help us understand how people of different backgrounds, with different access to power and resources have abided, resisted, and otherwise negotiated the powerful forces that have shaped their lives.

This is something I try to do in my recently published book, A People’s History of SFO: The Making of the Bay Area and an Airport, which tells the story of San Francisco International Airport as an infrastructural manifestation of power built in the past—including through colonialism, imperialism, economic exchange, and racial hierarchy—in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a site where people in the present fight to maintain—or disrupt—that power. Covering phenomena ranging from the influence of militarism on the civilian airport’s early development, to anti-jet noise activism in surrounding communities, to the airport’s own public art, museum, and sustainability programs, I illustrate how relationships visible at the airport have extended well beyond the facility itself.

I address labor struggles at various junctures in the volume, but they are central to a chapter focusing on Black antidiscrimination activism at SFO. The chapter begins in about 1960, at a moment when local activists were first beginning to direct significant attention to the facility’s discriminatory employment practices. It continues by tracing a series of partially successful efforts by Black airport workers, entrepreneurs, and their allies to desegregate unions, get access to better paying jobs, institute affirmative action programs for employment and contracts, and secure other forms of justice and remuneration. It concludes in the 1980s, when newly deregulated airlines followed other industries in a wave of mergers, reorganizations, and rollbacks of prior labor gains both for organized and unorganized workers, emergent neoliberal government policies reduced the social safety net, and a backlash against affirmative action was picking up steam with particular ferocity in California.

Tracing this story at the airport reveals a larger story about Black activism around employment in the Bay Area. Such struggle was shaped by the interfaces of many different actors and systems that redistributed power at the airport and beyond: shifts in the national and global economy; public and private capital investment; government and corporate antidiscrimination and affirmative action programs; and the work of local and national networks of business elites, labor organizers, and activists. It also makes painfully clear that such struggles advanced only as far as producing a precarious and patchy inclusion for Black people in the Bay Area: a kind of holding pattern defined by piecemeal professional integration and the more widespread consignment of Black men and women to low-wage, low-skilled work, intermittent employment, and unemployment. The factors, of course, are among those that have more recently led to Black displacement from the core Bay Area and outmigration from the region more generally.

All to say that when one investigates histories of labor struggles at airports—or other issues, like federal immigration policies enforced and protested at airports—one can gain new perspectives on the place where they are situated. Airports help us understand a multiplicity of connections that shape a region over time, and they help us see the ways power is manifest in those connections. As highly charged and controversial, deeply symbolic points of regional reference, airports are, after all, archives. They can be read alongside the interesting, provocative, sometimes bizarre sources one finds in local history rooms, government records repositories and other archives to show airports’ ever-changing meanings and importance for people who aren’t (or hope not to be) just passing through.