On Tuesday evening, passengers at Washington D.C.’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) were greeted with shouts of “one job should be enough!” and “when we fight, we win!” by airline catering workers holding an informational picket and rally. The UNITE HERE union members were out in force to draw attention to the conditions they’re experiencing on the job, and to warn that 15,000 fed up airline catering workers across 32 U.S. airports just voted to authorize a strike.
They want a $15 wage floor and reasonably-priced health care, and they’re united across the industry: The DCA demonstrators work for LSG Sky Chefs, which serves American Airlines at DCA. Employees at Gate Gourmet, another major industry player, joined the strike authorization; Delta Airlines and United Airlines could also be affected. Together, they account for three of the top four airlines in the United States, carrying nearly 400 million people in 2017.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
Eyerusalem Retta has been working in the bowels of DCA as an airline caterer since 1989, preparing beverages for customers like American Airlines. She said her starting wage was $5.15 an hour. After 30 years of service, she makes $13.35. “Our job is hard, we need better insurance, and for many, we want better retirements. We’re almost retired!,” she told TalkPoverty. The $15 minimum wage workers are demanding would result in a wage increase for “the majority” of airline catering workers, according to the union.
American Airlines made $1.9 billion in 2018.
Organizers are also contending with the high price of employee health insurance, especially for families; Retta pays $131 dollars weekly for her five-person family, a hardship on low pay. The health care situation is especially acute for workers with a long history of service. They are facing low wages paired with growing health issues caused by a working life of demanding physical labor that need attention. Sonia Toledo, who has worked for LSG Sky Chefs in Miami for 16 years, told TalkPoverty “I don’t have it, I don’t have any health care.”
“I’m paying for one bedroom, $1,700 a month. I have to work overtime. And sometimes, I don’t want to do it, but sometimes I need to work for Uber for extra money. It’s very tough. I’m a diabetic, I have to get medicine, I have to eat certain foods. So I gotta pay for this stuff,” said Nelson Robinson, a DCA worker who pays $50 weekly for his employer health insurance but adds that the copays are a burden.
Getting to this point has been a challenge. According to UNITE HERE, workers began negotiating a contract with Gate Gourmet in October 2017 — a company spokesperson told TalkPoverty the company “continues to work in good faith with the union” — and Sky Chefs in October 2018. But collective bargaining is difficult for airline and railway workers thanks to the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which guarantees bargaining rights in these industries with limitations. Specifically, workers can’t strike without permission from the National Mediation Board.
The union requested mediation in its negotiations with Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs in June 2018 and January 2019 respectively as it moved into the next phase of its negotiations. Now, workers are requesting a release to strike this week, hoping the Board agrees that the parties involved are unable to agree to arbitration. Workers have signaled that they are ready to strike as soon as the 30-day cooling period is up. Passengers in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and more would notice very quickly. Several affected airports are major regional hubs, like Atlanta, where a labor disruption could be costly for airlines.
It’s not just about the pay and health insurance. Working conditions for catering crews are extremely poor. Airline food is the subject of many a late-night comedy routine, but a flight without even the basics — like water and tea — can quickly turn into an unpleasant one. In fact, airlines are legally required to provide food and water to passengers stranded in tarmac delays. Fully cleaning out and resupplying a plane from the moment it arrives at the gate to the time it pushes back is a delicate but high-speed dance; every minute counts.
The work behind that turnaround, tiny bags of pretzels, plastic-wrapped swizzle sticks, and all, can be grueling. Those working at the airport must contend with blazing tarmac heat in summer and frigid conditions in winter. Offsite locations, where food is prepared and readied for catering, are often poorly temperature-controlled as well. For those in refrigerated work environments, the cold is constant. Retta described two years with no air conditioning in the notoriously swampy climate of D.C.
Caterers also work with caustic cleaning chemicals, sharp knives, and boiling-hot industrial dishwashers, all of which expose them to the risk of occupational injuries. In 2015, a Centers for Disease Control report documented high levels of carbon dioxide in refrigerated workspaces along with lack of access to water, and noted that most entries on injury logs were “acute traumatic injuries” like knife wounds.
Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs have both run afoul of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), most notably in cases involving the deaths of airport truck and lift operators or nearby employees, the people passengers are most likely to see while peering impatiently out the window to see if their planes are ready. In 2017, SkyChefs faced thousands of dollars in OSHA penalties for failing to maintain safe and operable exit routes.
Poor conditions are bad news for passengers, too. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration cited Gate Gourmet for “dead apparent nymph and adult cockroaches too numerous to count” in one Kentucky catering facility. It is the tip of a moldy, poorly temperature-controlled, cross-contaminated iceberg.
Without strike authorization, workers can and will continue trying to negotiate with their employers. The unions has not announced any plans to leverage slowdowns, stoppages, or sickouts — such as the large number of illnesses seen among flight traffic controllers during the 2018-2019 government shutdown. (The union made it clear that they did not “condone or endorse” such activity.) It has indicated that it will continue to pursue all legal means for resolving the labor dispute. But, the union noted in reference to the DCA action, “while we will continue this process it’s important to know that American Airlines can end this dispute right now, without the need for a strike,” by setting standards for pay and health insurance for catering workers.
In the meantime, the next time you open a stroopwafel on United, think about the hands that packaged it.
LSG Sky Chefs did not respond to a request for comment.