For the past few months, over 11,000 airline catering workers have taken steps toward a strike — and today, they are even closer. The workers, organized under UNITE HERE, are participating in “informational pickets” at over 30 airports across the country against American, Delta, and United Airlines. “By showing that we’re ready to strike, and by picketing today on one of the busiest air travel days of the year, we’re sending a strong message to the airlines that we can’t wait for months or years for change,” Stephanie Kopnang, who works at a kitchen in Dallas, home to the headquarters of American Airlines, said in a statement.
We are out leafleting this morning at DCA to let American Airlines passengers know that airline food workers have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if and when released by the government. #AirportStrikeAlert pic.twitter.com/m3QALgvocN— UNITE HERE Local 23 (@unitehere23) July 3, 2019
Following a historic strike vote by #unitehere airline catering workers ready to strike if/when released, workers serving @AmericanAir, @Delta & @United at hubs across the U.S. are holding informational pickets to start the peak July 4 travel season. #1Job #AirportStrikeAlert pic.twitter.com/OX62kooJVf— UNITE HERE (@unitehere) July 3, 2019
The airline caterers are organizing for better wages and benefits; most make less than $15 an hour, and say the company-provided insurance is too expensive for them to afford. Kopnang has worked for three and a half years for the American Airlines kitchen at DFW, the airline’s biggest hub. The kitchen has 955 workers, and they are among the lowest paid in the country. “Only 30 percent of the time people have insurance because it’s too expensive,” Kopnang told Eater. “I’m paying $54 a week for my insurance, for a family it’s $124. The lowest pay here is $9.85 an hour, I get paid $10.85 an hour. I work full time, but even with full time, everyone has to do overtime.” Meanwhile, these three airlines are making multiple billions in profits.
Last month, airline caterers, who are largely employees of Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs — all separate companies that work with airlines — voted to authorize a strike. Later this summer they will request release to strike from the National Mediation Board (it’s a complicated process, you can read more about it here). Though it has not yet come to a full strike, that would severely impact air travel; though airlines are not legally required to provide meals on regular flights, they are required to provide passengers with food and water during tarmac delays. “We voted for a strike two weeks ago,” said Kopnang. “We just want to show that we are ready to strike when the government releases us.”
Workers are gathering today to flex a bit by picketing some of the country’s biggest airports, and are planning other actions across airports all summer long. And before you make a joke about airline food (or lack thereof), in an article in the New York Times, labor historian Liesl Orenic talked about how much an airline catering strike could affect air travel: “The smallest mishap or interruption in any kind of service ripples out. 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.”
As Kopnang put it, “Who can travel without food? Without coffee? Without water? We provide all of that.”
Update: July 3, 2019, 2:55 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that Flying Food Group is not part of this action.