‘One job should be enough’—Airline food workers take their struggle public
Airline food workers deliver the message at Reagan National Airport in D.C., July 23. | Unite Here via Twitter

WASHINGTON—With political support from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and several Virginia state lawmakers, airline food preparation workers took their nationwide struggle against their bosses public with a July 23 protest that drew almost 1,000 people and virtually filled the old main hall at Washington National Airport.

The workers, organized by Unite Here, demand union recognition, better wages and benefits, and an end to employer interference in their organizing drives at airports nationwide. SkyChef employs 11,000 food prep workers for American Airlines and Delta, while 4,000 more who toil for CafeGourmet, organized with the Teamsters, prepare food for a third airline, United.

“One job should be enough,” was their frequent chant—the same one Unite Here hotel workers have used against the Marriott chain.

SkyChef and CafeGourmet together control the workers’ lives, and 80% of U.S. airlines’ food preparation. American, Delta, and United made over $50 billion in combined profits in just the past five years alone, Unite Here notes. But the workers who prepare and load food and beverages onto their planes are often left living in poverty and unable to afford healthcare.

That’s because the food service firms impose rock-bottom pay, offer health insurance to few, and have no pensions. But the money and the real control rests with the air carriers. “American Airlines could correct this. That’s the bottom line,” the Rev. Grayson Hagler, the prominent and outspoken pro-worker D.C. pastor, said in a brief interview. “They’re the ones who are paying the piper.”

Mark Gruenberg / PW

The food prep workers “want the same benefits” other unionized airline workers get, plus a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to organize without employer intimidation, interference, and lawbreaking, Dallas SkyChef 4-year kitchen worker Balin Yakasa told People’s World. He makes $11.65 hourly, but knows 30-year workers there who make only $14.60.

“I spend my life in the kitchen, 12, 13, sometimes 15 hours a day. I’d like to spend more of it with my family. That’s not right. We need $15 and” also retirement” income “we can survive on,” Yakasa said. “We feed the world, but our kids go hungry,” Teamsters’ printed signs said.

Both the Unite Here and Teamsters groups have overwhelmingly approved strike authorization votes, but the National Mediation Board—which rules airline and railroad worker-boss relations—has yet to release them to strike, or to release the food firms to lock them out.

National and local politicians sprang to the workers’ support, led by Sens. Sanders, Ind-Vt., the longtime worker advocate, and Warren, D-Mass. Both are Democratic presidential hopefuls, as is de Blasio.

Tlaib, D-Mich., and Virginia State Sen. Jennifer Boysko and state Delegates Paul Krizek and Cathy Tran also spoke. Other speakers included a rep from the Air Line Pilots, one of many unions whose members joined the protest.

“Push back against corporate greed,” Tlaib, one of two Democratic Socialists in Congress, urged. “They (the airlines) made $50 billion” combined “in the last five years,” she declared, to cheers. They can afford a living wage for their workers, Tlaib said.

The three Virginia Democrats joined the picket line, too, while Warren flourished a “one job is enough” Unite Here sign after her remarks.

“My 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte, asked me ‘Why do they go on strike?’” Tran told the crowd. “I told her they need a better wage.” Charlotte, who was at the demonstration with her mother, nodded in agreement. “If an 8-year-old can understand it, then the CEOs who run some of the richest companies in the country can understand it.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was among many political supporters who attended the demonstration. | Unite Here via Twitter

The workers’ pay is so low “that they’re working three jobs while leaving their kids at home without a caretaker, because they can’t afford one,” Boysko added.

“The American people are sick and tired of corporate greed,” Sanders declared after receiving a boisterous welcome punctuated by chants of “Bernie!” “It’s not acceptable that two-thirds of these workers are making less than $15 an hour and only one-third get company-paid health care. You can’t pay your rent, your health care, or buy your food on that. We’re saying, ‘Enough is enough!’”

“When Marriott strikers were on the line and they started using ‘One job should be enough,’ I thought this captures it, this captures it for the entire economy,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler told the group after Sanders spoke. “Because what we are seeing is corporate greed run amok.”


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.