Air Travel Workers Seek to Capitalize on Newfound Clout
When President Trump announced a deal to end the government shutdown in January, hours after the Federal Aviation Administration briefly stopped flights into La Guardia Airport amid a shortage of air traffic controllers, many concluded that workers’ impact on travel had led the White House to retreat.
“I think it’s really obvious to all aviation workers that that’s what happened,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “There are also many people in government who echo” that analysis.
Now, other airport workers are testing that dynamic.
This month, about 11,000 airline catering workers — the people who prepare and transport food and beverages that millions of passengers consume on flights each year — will vote on whether to authorize a strike. Many make the minimum wage in their areas, or less, and toil in harsh conditions with limited benefits. But collectively, they have the power to disrupt the air travel network.
“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, it can interrupt all the people getting on that plane and all the other flights that plane has to do.”
For decades, as unionization rates fell and the country moved to a service economy, organized labor has found its direct economic leverage diminishing.
Even successful labor actions in the last few years, like the Fight for $15 campaign, which has helped raise wages in fast food and other industries, have tended to bring political pressure through sophisticated public-relations tactics rather than attempts to directly inflict economic losses.
But the muscle-flexing by airport workers may reflect the return of a model in which aggrieved employees threaten the wheels of commerce.
During the government shutdown, it was an increase in the number of air traffic controllers who called in sick that prompted the F.A.A. to halt flights headed for La Guardia. (Their union said that the delays had resulted from the absence of a small number of controllers acting individually amid the strains of the shutdown and that it would oppose a coordinated sickout.)
More recently, mechanics at Southwest Airlines won raises after a large increase in the number of maintenance issues they flagged forced flight delays and cancellations.
D. Taylor, president of the hospitality-industry union Unite Here, which represents a majority of airline catering workers, did not rule out the possibility that his members’ actions could have similar effects.
“We’ll do whatever it takes, within legal means, to make sure workers get good contracts,” Mr. Taylor said.
The workers are primarily employees of two large catering companies, LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, although United Airlines employs some directly. As a group, they are among the lowest-paid workers at airports, especially among those whose labor directly affects operations on flights.
The union has proposed a national wage floor of $15 per hour for all catering workers and wants the companies to make their health insurance substantially more affordable.
A Sky Chefs spokesman said the union had agreed through collective bargaining to the pay rates, even allowing them to supersede state or local wage laws.
Preston Strickland, who works at the Sky Chefs kitchen serving Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, said he typically prepares over 1,500 cold entrees in a shift, which he spends in an area kept at 40 degrees or below.
Mr. Strickland makes a little over $11 per hour after more than four years on the job and cannot afford health insurance on his company’s plan, he said.
“I prefer to pay my phone bill, car insurance,” he said. “If I get sick, I go to the emergency room.” He recently spent several months homeless because he didn’t have money for rent.
Workers also complain about the companies’ tendency to run kitchens with too few workers, too little equipment and haphazard upkeep.
Juan Blanco, a driver with Sky Chefs at a kitchen serving Kennedy International Airport in New York, said through an interpreter that a door on his truck had a broken spring and fell on his head in 2017, leaving him with a concussion and a shoulder injury requiring surgery. He was out of work for weeks and relied on workers’ compensation payments to cover his hospital bills.
The Food and Drug Administration has validated some of these concerns, citing the catering companies for numerous food-safety infractions over the years.
In March 2018, the agency sent Gate Gourmet a warning letter regarding its workplace near Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where inspectors observed “dead apparent nymph and adult cockroaches too numerous to count” in areas where food was cooked, as well as “a heavy buildup of more than a day’s accumulation of grease, food deposits and general filth.”
The agency said in a follow-up letter two months later that the company had addressed its concerns. A Gate Gourmet spokeswoman said the company had worked closely with the F.D.A. to correct the issues.
Unlike most private-sector workers, caterers and other airline workers are covered by the Railway Labor Act, whose purpose is to avoid chaos in the rail and airline industries because of their importance to interstate commerce. That means workers don’t have the right to strike without permission — officially a “release” from mediation — from a federal agency known as the National Mediation Board, which rarely grants it.
But as recent events have demonstrated, there is a wide gulf between labor harmony and a formal strike, and workers have ample opportunity within that range to affect air travel. During the stalemate at Southwest, the company accused its mechanics of effectively grounding planes over minor glitches, such as missing row numbers. The union denied these allegations.
While mechanics and others have periodically resorted to such actions, workers appear to have become more aggressive in the past few years, as airline profits have soared without a significant increase in compensation or commitments on job security.
Some have long been leery of this approach. Air traffic controllers were traumatized for decades by the mass firing of controllers at the hands of the Reagan administration over an illegal strike in 1981. Until this year, they tended to avoid any significant action that could be construed as coordinated.
Some economically vulnerable workers have been less assertive as well, but experts say catering workers have underappreciated leverage. According to Robert W. Mann, a longtime airline industry consultant, there is far less margin for error built into the air travel system compared with two or three decades ago.
If a flight is supposed to arrive at Gate G17, Mr. Mann posited, “and half an hour before departure it flips over to Gate A24, the logistics of getting that catering to arrive at the now distant Gate A24 in time to do everything else in the sequence you have to do it is quite daunting.” A team of less than fully motivated workers could throw the whole process off.
In principle, the airlines could scale back in-flight food and beverage service. But they would risk a backlash from passengers, one that might be amplified by other airport workers.
“We will also take part in helping to inform the public more generally about what disruption this would have in our ability to provide service,” said Ms. Nelson, the flight attendants’ leader.
The confrontation looms as labor disruptions appear to be rising, albeit in vastly different contexts.
New England workers at the grocery chain Stop & Shop won wage increases and preserved health care benefits that the company had threatened after more than 30,000 of them staged an 11-day strike in April that cost the company an estimated $100 million.
That followed last year’s teacher walkouts, which shut down schools in several states for days. Over all, the number of workers who took part in strikes involving more than 1,000 workers last year reached its highest level since the mid-1980s; the number of days lost to such strikes was the highest in 15 years.
The National Mediation Board, where Republicans hold a majority, appears to appreciate the high stakes for management and labor that may be converging at airports.
This year, the board proposed a rule that would make it easier to eliminate airport and railway unions. Although the rule had long been in the works, according to the agency, the timing of its release struck union leaders as intriguing: It came less than one week after the government shutdown ended.