Union airline food workers demand a way out of poverty

Stephan, a University of Hartford cafeteria worker, Unite Here Local 217. (Photo: Diana Bailey-St Mark)


Hundreds of airline food-worker members of Unite Here and supporters rallied across the U.S. in 17 cities on Nov. 26. Despite having union recognition for years, nearly 11,000 workers who prepare the in-flight catered food generally make less than $12 per hour. Companies like American Airlines, United, and Delta have subcontracted food services to LGS Sky Chefs and Gourmet Gates.

Workers in the hospitality industry who are widely organized by Unite Here often face uphill battles against both subcontracting and the implementation of technology. In this fight, the union is directing attention not only on the subcontracted companies but also on American Airlines.

Stephan Alderman, a cook and shop steward at the University of Hartford and executive board member of Local 217 Unite Here said, “This is the best part of organizing, when we all come together and take action. I support the sky Chef workers at United and all the catering workers throughout Airlines who have deplorable conditions. We are fighting for living wages and affordable healthcare. One job should be enough!”

Unite Here is not alone in this fight as two other unions represent these airline food workers. Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are also in negotiations with LGS Sky Chefs and Gourmet Gates.

At John F. Kennedy Airport’s Terminal 8 in New York City, roughly 500 workers held a mass picket line and die-in. Around 60 workers and supporters committed civil disobedience, blocking the departure driveway to Terminal 8 and stopping traffic. They were arrested by the New York Port Authority for what was seen as an attempt to disrupt travel for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Socialist Resurgence members in Philadelphia reported that around 400 workers and supporters participated in a vibrant picket line, die-in, and civil disobedience action, in which 39 were arrested. About 50 were arrested in San Francisco, at least 16 in Los Angeles, and the scene was repeated in airports across the U.S.

Unfortunately, while the picket line at JFK, for example, was energetic and strong, there was a noticeable absence of support from the broader labor movement beyond a few members of the NYSNA nurses’ union and UAW grad student employees. The participation of the broader labor, socialist, and student movement is essential to ensure a victory against LGS Sky Chef and Gourmet Gates.

Employer health-care affordability for low-wage workers is declining everywhere, and the situation is no different for those working at LGS Sky Chef and Gourmet Gates. Some workers fighting for better employer health care have highlighted the need for unions to wage a broader struggle around the demand for universal health care as a human right.

While it is unclear if and when these airline food workers will win a good contract, recent efforts by rank-and-file members of Unite Here show the effective use of the strike as a powerful tool to advance worker’s struggles.

The recent victory of workers at the Battery Wharf Hotel in Boston, following more than two months out on strike, brought significant improvements to wages and health care. Similarly, in 2018, nearly 8000 Unite Here members working in Marriott hotels went on strike in eight cities. After a two-month struggle they won better pay, pensions, and working conditions. An airline food-worker strike today, and victory tomorrow, would be an important example of the dynamic revival of working-class struggles in the U.S., and it would pave the way for future worker-led fights.

Socialist Resurgence continues to encourage all socialists, students, and activists to build these actions. We also suggest that rank-and-file workers pass resolutions in their union locals supporting the airline food workers and help mobilize their coworkers to stand in solidarity when the next actions are called. Videos or pictures of support will also help build confidence when workers see their struggle has advanced beyond their shop and union.

Even though workers voted 90% in favor of striking, federal regulations prohibit strikes with out government permission. The Railway Labor Act has prevented public sector unions from striking for decades. The threat of a general strike by Sara Nelson, head of the flight attendants union, at the beginning of 2019 during the government shutdown would have been a serious challenge to this law. If a strike is called by the airline food workers, a serious effort should be made to build picket lines on an even larger scale than the pickets for the Stop and Shop UFCW strike, teacher strikes, and the UAW strike. Coordinated efforts will help reinforce pickets, build strike funds, and educate on the importance of solidarity in the class struggle.


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