11,000 Airline Food Caterer Employees Serving American, Delta and United Are Considering a Strike

Jun 10, 2019

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About 11,000 airline catering employees will vote in the next two weeks on whether to go on strike, according to a report by The New York Times.

Plans for a strike were set in motion by Unite Here, the union that represents a vast majority of airline catering employees working for LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet — the companies responsible for preparing and delivering food for American, Delta and United Airlines. Many of these workers are making the minimum wage or less with limited benefits (only 34% are covered by employer-provided health insurance) and work under less-than-savory conditions.

“Since 2015, I have worked overtime preparing the food for American Airlines flights and still have been unable to afford medical insurance and stable housing,” said catering employee Preston Strickland in a Unite press release. “At one point I worked overtime every day straight for three weeks and still ended up in a homeless shelter because one job at American Airlines is not enough. I do good, honest work every day, but I still can’t even afford both medical coverage and rent. That’s why my coworkers and I are voting to strike when released –- because one job should be enough.”

To combat this, the union is proposing a national wage floor of $15 per hour for all caterers, and for employers to act to reduce the costs of health insurance.

Going on strike, particularly in the tourism industry, is no easy feat. Under the Railway Labor Act, rail and airline industry workers don’t have the right to strike without permission — meaning that they need an official “release” from the National Mediation Board, a federal agency that rarely issues such grants. However, recent events indicate that there other paths for labor unrest that fall short of a formal strike. For example, Southwest Airlines mechanics earned raises after forcing the airliner to declare an operational emergency in response to a spike in the number of out-of-service aircraft.

In another such incident, during the government shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019, a leap in the number of Air Traffic Control (ATC) workers calling out sick caused widespread delays and a brief shutdown at LaGuardia Airport (LGA). This arguably was a major factor in forcing the government to reopen.

Symptoms of unrest seeped into operations a year ago when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport Gate Gourmet after inspectors found dead cockroaches “too numerous to count” in an area where food was being prepared as well as “a heavy buildup” of grease, food deposits and filth. A Gate Gourmet spokeswoman has since told The New York Times that “the company had worked closely with the FDA to correct the issues.” However, this is just one example of a few citations issued by the FDA against airline food catering companies in past years.

“The smallest mishap or interruption in any kind of service ripples out,” said Liesl Orenic, a labor historian at Dominican University in Illinois who has studied airport workers. “If a plane doesn’t get catered,” she told the New York Times,  “it can interrupt all the people getting on that plane and all the other flights that plane has to do.”

The union is currently still awaiting a release from the National Mediation Board. The strike votes will begin June 11 in kitchen airports that serve major airline hubs such as Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW), New York (JFK), Miami (MIA), Seattle-Tacoma (SEA), Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), San Francisco (SFO), Detroit (DTW), Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and Philadelphia (PHL). 

“The three biggest airlines in the country, American, Delta, and United, made $50 billion in combined profits in just the past five years alone — so why do workers who serve their food earn under $10 an hour in some cities?” said D. Taylor, international president of Unite Here in a press release. “The airline industry is making record profits on the backs of deeply exploited kitchen workers who are forced to choose between paying their bills, relying on government assistance or even forfeiting medical care even while working overtime. We refuse to allow that to continue.”

Featured image by Patrik Stollarz/Getty Images.

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