Exploited catering workers protest at busy airports
Nelson Robinson, DCA kitchen, Washington D.C. Screenshot from video on UNITE HERE FB page.

ARLINGTON, Va. (PAI)—Yerusalem Retta commutes 23 miles one-way at least five days a week from her home in the northern D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Md., to her job at LSG SkyChef’s kitchens near Washington’s National Airport in Arlington, Va. She makes meals for the thousands of daily passengers who travel on American Airlines, and sometimes other carriers, too.

She has three kids and sometimes has to put gas in her car or dinner on their table using credit cards. That’s because she makes $13.35 an hour – and that’s before LSG takes out $134 a week from her paycheck to pay for her family’s health insurance.

And here’s the worst part of the story. Retta’s been working there since 1989.

Her starting salary then? Five dollars an hour – and health insurance was $11 a week. “Times were good then, and the insurance was affordable,” she said.

“Now, it’s not enough,” the soft-spoken woman added.

Retta’s pay is low even though UNITE HERE has a nationwide union contract to cover 20,000 airline meal creators at the two big caterers, SkyChef and GateGourmet. But the pact expired more than a year ago and a federal mediator has been trying to bring the two sides together ever since. Management has turned completely deaf ears, unionists said.

So that’s why UNITE HERE’s thousands of SkyChef workers hit informational picket lines at 17 or more busy airports from Honolulu to Miami on Nov. 26, at the height of the Thanksgiving travel season. The workers were forced to stage identical protests months ago. Some 50 were arrested after a peaceful sit-in at Dallas-Fort Worth, American’s headquarters.

Few of those workers make $15 an hour, which was one chanted demand at D.C. and elsewhere. Pensions are nonexistent. And Retta’s report shows how expensive health care is. Fellow worker Cortez Baker says he can’t afford it; he uses Medicaid. “If you pay for their health care plan, you don’t have any money left,” he adds.

But the financial details are not really in the hands of LSG SkyChef. They’re in the hands of the carriers – American, Delta, United and smaller airlines – who refuse to tell their caterer to negotiate a decent union contract, even as the carriers earn billions.

So Retta and dozens of other LSG SkyChef’s D.C. workers descended on National Airport. And there were two separate protests at Chicago’s O’Hare. The workers want to force the carriers, who really run the show, to get SkyChef to agree to decent pay, affordable health care and pensions for the hard-working employees.

“I survive only because I’m self-employed” in the hours she doesn’t work for SkyChef, and because of her credit cards, Retta told PAI during the D.C. march – before others of her colleagues staged peaceful civil disobedience by a sit-in in the middle of a National Airport drop-off road.

Other workers tell similar tales of SkyChef’s penury. Cortez piles up hours of overtime, which the company sometimes forces on him, and holds other jobs. “And I still don’t have enough to make ends meet,” he says. “I can’t afford to have a family.”

Faisal Abdallah, who has worked nearly 11 years for SkyChef at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, can’t go to the doctor.

“If I get sick, I take pills and go back to work,” making meals for Delta passengers, the Fridley resident told the St. Paul Union Advocate during the union rally there. “I don’t have a choice. I can’t afford the insurance even though I work two other jobs. I don’t know what I would do if I got seriously sick.”

He, too, piles up the overtime. “I serve Delta flights every day at work,” Abdallah said. “Delta makes billions in profit, but I have to work three jobs just to pay my bills. I often work over 80 hours per week at my jobs, and I barely get to sleep.”

UNITE HERE represents some 20,000 airline catering workers nationwide who toil for SkyChef and GateGourmet. Nearly half of Unite Here Local 17 members employed by the two caterers at the Twin Cities airport make less than $15 an hour. Fewer have affordable health care options.

Their target was Delta, which is non-unionized except for its pilots. They called it “cheap and mean.” The target at National was American Airlines, Chavez said. He noted SkyChef, in bargaining, has yet to budge from its initial offer of a 30-cents-per-hour flat raise for each of the next three years, followed by a wage freeze.

That’s its offer to all the unionized workers, not just at American and Delta.

“And they want to make us pay for our uniforms. They want to make us pay for parking. They even want to make us pay for lunch,” he adds. “It’s almost sweatshop conditions.”

St. Paul Union Advocate contributed to this article.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.