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Just in time for summer travel: Airline food workers to vote on strike threat

  • About 11,000 workers who prepare food for American, United and Delta airlines are voting in 21 cities across the U.S. on whether to authorize strikes.
  • Many make $12 an hour. "If there is a definition of the working poor, it's the airline food workers," leader of the service workers union Unite Here said.
  • The threatened labor action could make summer air travel even more uncomfortable than it typically is.

The people who prepare food for three major U.S. airlines are threatening to walk off their jobs in a demand for higher wages and less costly health insurance. 

About 11,000 airline food workers are voting this week and next in 21 cities across the country on whether to authorize a strike, according to Unite Here, a hospitality-industry union representing a majority of airline catering employees. The ballots are a first step towards a potential strike.  

Unite Here is negotiating on behalf of some 3,270 Gate Gourmet employees and 7,679 Sky Chefs employees that service flights for American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines at major hubs. The union is also in talks with United on behalf of 2,600 food workers directly employed by the airline and currently not covered by a contract.

The union represents 270,000 workers in industries including hotel, gambling, food service, manufacturing and transportation in the U.S. and Canada. It led walkouts by thousands of Marriott workers across the U.S. last year before negotiating improved pay and benefits for about 12,000 bellhops, front-desk clerks, housekeepers and kitchen staff employed by the hotel chain. 

Fed nod needed to legally call a strike

The airline workers, however, will still need an official release from the National Mediation Board to legally call a strike. As opposed to most in the private sector, transportation-related jobs are covered by the Railway Labor Act, intended to prevent disruptions in the travel industry due to its potential impact on interstate commerce. Should the carrier caterers vote to authorize a strike, Unite Here would then petition the NMB for a release to call legal walkouts. 

"We're in negotiations, we're following the law, but we want to have the right to collective action, just like we did with the Marriott last fall," said D. Taylor, Unite Here's international president.  

Recent events have shown that workers can impact air travel without calling an official walkout.

Southwest planes taken out of service as mechanics raise safety concerns

Last month, some 2,500 Southwest Airlines mechanics approved a contract giving them raises after about seven years of negotiations. The deal came after Southwest found itself plagued by flight delays and cancellations as the crews that maintain the planes flagged a slew of maintenance issues, with Southwest accusing the mechanics of an illegal work slowdown and the mechanics saying they were only voicing safety concerns.

And, while there's no proof of a correlation, a dearth of air traffic controllers briefly halted flights into New York's La Guardia Airport shortly before President Donald Trump announced a deal to end the government shutdown in January.

Flying without

Some airport logistics might be impacted, but catered food is one of the things people can fly without, according to Jeffrey Price, a professor in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "It would have less of an impact than many years ago when people got actual food on a plane." 

While air travel would hardly grind to a halt should food workers walk off their jobs, it could make airline operations less than smooth, other experts said.

"Let's put it this way, if this happens, it's not going to make summer travel any more pleasant," said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. "It's not like airlines can go to Grubhub or DoorDash to offer food for 150 people or so on each flight. The supply chain that is behind this is a complicated one, an airline can't just go order a bunch of pizzas to be delivered."

Beyond preparing meals and snacks, airline caterers also perform tasks like stocking beverage carts and provisioning cabins with things like headsets for in-flight entertainment, said Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group.

"While catering is not the workforce people traditionally think about in the components of getting planes off the ground, it is part of having a safe and comfortable airplane, in the air or on the ground," said Liesl Orenic, a labor historian at Dominican University in Illinois. "You need potable water on a plane, and food, as even on short flights there might be congestion and weather delays."

Working poor

The railway act also exempts airline industry employers from having to pay the prevailing union wage that most local government contractors offer. 

"If there's a definition of the working poor, it's the airline food workers," Unite Here's Taylor told CBS MoneyWatch. "We do not want the government to stop us from doing what's necessary -- we're not pilots, who already have a middle-class income."  

Ronnie Lalimo has worked for Sky Chefs for about a dozen years, first in Arizona and more recently in Seattle, where he earns $18.33 an hour. He pays $544 a month for medical insurance to cover his family, which includes a wife and two children. It's a financial hurdle he overcomes by working 60 to 70 hours a week and by living in a motel while trying to save enough to rent an apartment.

"I'm also fighting for my fellow employees, many are making $12 an hour," Lalimo said of his coming threat to walk off the job. 

Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs both said they were negotiating with the unions in good faith, all the while noting the federal law that bars workers from striking and, in the words of Gate Gourmet, "prevents operational disruptions."

A spokesperson for United said the carrier continues to negotiate with Unite Here but also has "contingency plans in place to preserve the experience of our customers."