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Ethiopian Immigrants Labor Union in U.S.

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In his native Ethiopia, Bert Bayou was a middle-class professional with a United Nations job. But like tens of thousands of his countrymen, he left his war-torn homeland to start over in the United States. Arriving in Washington in 2001, he used the immigrant grapevine to find low-wage job parking garages and coffee shops where other Ethiopians worked.

Today Bayou, 38, is a labor union official in the District and the veteran of a successful campaign to improve job conditions for garage workers. Now, his union is hoping to organize another niche of Ethiopian employment: the restaurants and newsstands at Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

More than 1,500 people sell snacks and magazines, wait on tables and clean floors at dozens of terminal outlets such as Starbucks and Hudson News, which are under contract at both airports with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Between 60 and 75 percent of those workers are from Ethi­o­pia, according to union officials.

The environment is bright and modern, with both airports having recently upgraded retail services. Yet many workers earn about $10 per hour even after years on the job — less than for similar jobs at other major U.S. airports, union leaders say. Workers say their shifts change unpredictably, some companies offer no health benefits and they can be penalized for taking vacations.