Airline food preparers ponder work stoppage amid fight for better wages, health insurance
Margara Severino works 55 hours a week making salads and sandwiches for passengers flying out of Logan Airport, but she still sometimes has to use food stamps or drive for Uber to make ends meet. She can’t afford the health insurance offered by her employer, LSG Sky Chefs, and is periodically kicked off MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, when she works too many hours. She has back pain from standing for eight hours or more as she assembles 1,000 entrees a night.
After 11 years on the job, during which time her wages have crept up to just $12.43 an hour, Severino, 30, is ready to fight for more. On Thursday, Severino will be among 345 Sky Chefs workers in Boston voting on whether to authorize a strike, part of a national effort targeting Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, the largest airline catering subcontractors in the country. Roughly 350 Boston employees of Gate Gourmet will vote separately.
In all, more than 20,000 workers at airports in 21 cities are voting this month on approving a work stoppage if their unions can’t reach an agreement with the catering companies, which serve dozens of airlines.
At Logan, the two subcontractors serve 31 airlines, the biggest of which are American and United. It is thought to be the largest vote of its kind in the history of the US airline catering industry.
The unions are calling for a $15 an hour wage floor and more affordable health insurance. Negotiations began in October and are currently in federal mediation.
Several unions have won significant gains for their workers through recent work stoppages. Unite Here, which represents 11,000 Sky Chefs employees nationwide and has a joint bargaining agreement with the unions representing Gate Gourmet workers, also represents Marriott hotel workers, who went on strike in eight cities last fall. In Boston, the hotel workers won large increases in wages and pensions, paid maternity leave, and wide-ranging job protections.
But the catering workers’ ability to take action is complicated by the Railway Labor Act, which prevents railroad and airline workers from striking until the National Mediation Board releases them to do so.
It’s unclear if the Republican-controlled board would approve such an action, but even if workers don’t walk off the job, they have the ability to disrupt the national air travel system as the summer travel season kicks into high gear. If negotiations drag on, the workers could adopt a tactic used by other transportation unions in which they only perform work required by their contract and adhere precisely to safety regulations — taking care not to cross the line into an illegal job action. This could slow down the process of getting food and drinks onto planes and have a ripple effect on the airlines’ carefully orchestrated schedules.
Some attribute the end of the federal government shutdown earlier this year to a small group of air traffic controllers who called in sick Jan. 25, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to briefly halt flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and slow traffic at other busy hubs. A few hours later, President Trump announced a deal to end the shutdown.
For Severino, who lives in public housing in Charlestown with her two children and her mother, the time has come to draw attention to the inequities in her industry.
“With what they pay me, I have to choose whether to pay my bills on time or to buy food,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Eleven years working there, giving them the best of myself, my best work, the government needs to know there’s a problem.”
Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet did not comment on the strike authorization vote but said the companies continue to negotiate in good faith. American Airlines, Sky Chefs’ biggest client at Logan, said it supports the right to collective bargaining and does not expect any impact on its catering operations.
Informational picket lines are planned at Logan starting June 20, the day of the final strike authorization vote in Chicago.
Food production for airlines has been on the rise in recent years, as premium-class meals go upscale and more prepackaged food is offered for sale. With booming international travel — about the only category in which in-flight meals are still provided, even in economy — airlines are raking in profits. In 2018, US passenger airlines made $11.8 billion in profit, the sixth consecutive year of after-tax profits.
But catering workers have not benefited.
Nationwide, employees of Gate Gourmet, who are represented locally by the Teamsters Local 25, and Sky Chefs pay more than $500 a month for family health insurance premiums, according to Unite Here, and only 7 percent of workers had such a plan in 2018. Only 34 percent of individual employees were covered by the company’s health insurance plan.
At Sky Chefs in Boston, where an overwhelming majority of workers are immigrants, the median wage is $13.80 an hour.
“There are people living in poverty who are servicing an incredibly profitable industry,” said Brian Lang, president of Unite Here Local 26 in Boston. “We’re embarrassed that we have members in our union that are working and living in the conditions that these folks are.”
Last winter, when fewer people were traveling and flights were canceled during storms, Pamela Mullen had her hours cut; one week, when the Sky Chefs employee took ill after maxing out her paid sick time, she made just $70. She was living in transitional housing provided by the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter, where she had previously been staying, and had to rely on a staff member to buy her sandwiches.
“I was living on the edge,” said Mullen, 54, who is from Kenya and sends money to help support her 2-year-old granddaughter there.
She is currently working 52 hours a week: “I’m trying to work as much as I can now because I know winter is coming again.”
A potential slowdown by food service workers would probably have less of an impact than actions by air traffic controllers and mechanics because it wouldn’t compromise passenger safety, noted Daniel Kasper, an aviation consultant with Compass Lexecon in Boston. Still, people would be upset if there was no food on a flight, and airlines can’t afford to let a labor action throw a wrench in their tight schedules.
“The unions think that if they can gum up the operations,” he said, “the carriers are going to be putting heat on the catering companies to get this resolved.”