Airline trade group Airlines For America said Tuesday that 2019 Thanksgiving holiday air travel will be the heaviest ever, with about three million passengers on the five heaviest days, all between Tuesday Nov. 26 and Sunday Dec. 1.
On Tuesday, a lot of the projected 2.8 million passengers are going to see airport labor demonstrations.
Unite Here, which represents airline catering workers, plans demonstrations at 17 airports including Charlotte, Chicago O’Hare, Dallas, Newark, JFK and Washington National. (See list of airports at the end of this story.)
The union expects the number of demonstrators at each airport to range from about 200 to as many as 1,000 at JFK.
The demonstrations represent the union’s latest effort to secure improvements in pay, health care and working conditions for airport caterers, who prepare the food for onboard service.
Unite Here president D. Taylor said the union has no intent to disrupt holiday travel, but it wants to call attention to the workers’ plight. Except for about 2,700 caterers at United Air Lines, who last week voted nearly unanimously in support of a strike if ongoing negotiations fail, most U.S. catering workers are employed by two companies, LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet. The union is engaged in mediated talks with the two companies.
“We don’t want to affect customers,” Taylor said in an interview. “We do want to get a message out. Our goal is to bring to light what’s going on with the plight of workers. We’re trying to say that airline companies make billions and we want a piece of the American dream.”
Taylor said the demonstrations will focus on American Airlines, even though American does not directly employ catering workers, but rather subcontracts with the two providers.
“You can’t take on every airline,” Taylor said. “You have to deal with the largest. If American agrees that helps overall.”
American has encouraged the catering companies to make a deal.
“American Airlines respects and supports the rights of workers to join a union and bargain collectively— in fact, 84 % of our team members are represented by unions,” said American spokesman Josh Freed.
“We believe in the collective bargaining process,” Freed said. “We understand that a new contract will, ultimately, increase the costs to customers, including American. “
Spokespersons for Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs said they are making progress in the mediated talks. But both also expressed skepticism about union tactics.
“We have talks scheduled in December and expect to reach a fair and competitive agreement at some point through continued federal mediation, as we have in the past,” said Gate Gourmet spokesman Nancy Jewell.
“Gate Gourmet has made significant improvements for our people in wages and benefits across the U.S.,” Jewell said. “We are disappointed by the union’s unreasonable and unaffordable demands for wage increases and medical benefits which hinder the long-term sustainability of our industry, create unrealistic expectations and delay progress.”
LSG Sky Chefs spokesman David Margulies said, “Our negotiating team and a federal mediator have been working since May 2019 to negotiate in good faith with the union representing our employees.
“Our company has offered improvements in wages and is discussing numerous other issues covered by our collective bargaining agreement,” Margulies said. “We feel progress is being made with the help of the federal mediator. We remain committed to negotiating in good faith, and we hope that union members will act lawfully as they exercise their right to demonstrate or protest.”
Sky Chefs serves American at most of its hubs, while Gate Gourmet has the contract at O’Hare and both contractors serve American at LAX.
Next week’s demonstrations will take place at a time when national support for labor appears to be gaining – an August Gallop poll shows 64% support for labor unions – even as union membership remains around 10.5%, down from about 35% in 1954.
While the airline industry is heavily unionized, Taylor said the benefits of unionization have not trickled down to catering workers.
“You are judged not by your best contract, but by your worst conduct,” Taylor said. “God bless the big three airline companies, but our folks live in poverty. Catering workers work in large industrial kitchens and are often invisible.
“They work in cold damp places in the winters of Minneapolis and hot places in summer in Phoenix,” he said. “They are predominantly female and people of color. We’re trying to get airlines to recognize that and lift up their standard of living.”
The union said it is bargaining for a national wage floor of $15, plus added seniority pay. National contracts with both vendors became amendable on Dec. 31, 2018.
Unite Here has been at the forefront of recent gains by hotel workers. Late in 2018, about 7,700 members struck 23 hotels operated by Marriott International. The strike began in October and went into early December.
A theme, Taylor said, was that “one job should be enough,” but that often hotel workers need to work two or three jobs to survive. Workers got higher wages, better health care, and safety buttons in each room to enable alerts in the event of sexual attacks.
The focus on American replicates the focus on Marriott. “We thought that Marriott being the largest company, they had to set the standard,” Taylor said. “Hilton, International followed suit.”
Unite Here has about 300,000 members, including about 140,000 hotel workers and 20,000 airline industry workers, primarily caterers, but also about 1,000 concession workers at the Atlanta airport.