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Airline Catering Strike Could Face Turbulent Approval Process (2)

June 28, 2019, 4:51 PMUpdated: June 28, 2019, 7:11 PM

It could be one of the largest strikes to hit the modern aviation industry. But there’s one significant hurdle: The federal government must first sign off.

Up to 25,000 airline catering workers—the employees who prepare, package, and deliver food and beverages to commercial flights—could go on strike as soon as late summer. More than 11,000 of those workers already have voted overwhelmingly to approve such a work action.

Dozens of airports and tens of thousands of travelers could be affected.

The employees, primarily represented by UNITE HERE, are seeking pay raises, better health care, safer work conditions, and the establishment of a pension. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union also represent some of the workers.

But since the airline catering workers operate in the commercial aviation sector, UNITE HERE has to first convince the federal government that all other negotiating options are exhausted and a strike is necessary. That’s different from the rest of the private sector where a strike is at the discretion of a union.

A strike could be a tough sell, according to Memphis-based attorney Chris Harrison. He represents airline and railway industry clients at Ogletree Deakins.

“The traditional strike—those things are very hard to get to and few and far between,” Harrison said.

A Slow Process

Collective bargaining agreements in the aviation sector don’t expire. They become amendable.

Contracts can take years to negotiate, according to Harrison. And the government has a process to ensure commerce isn’t affected.

If airline industry negotiations become stalemated, a federal mediator is appointed to move both sides toward a solution. A mediator is working with UNITE HERE on the airline catering negotiations.

“All these mediators are experienced and it’s not their first time to the rodeo,” Harrison said. “They know the process, they know that it takes time. And both sides from time to time are going to jump up and down and say this needs to happen or that needs to happen, but they’re going to let it work its way out.”

Only once the federal mediator believes an impasse has been reached can the case go before the National Mediation Board, a three-member panel, which can ultimately release the parties from their contract.

Unions can only call a strike in the airline industry once a release has been obtained.

A release also can work against a union, according to Harrison. Once released, companies can alter the terms of a union contract and lock out workers, preventing them from coming to work.

UNITE HERE said it plans to ask the NMB and its mediator for a release in July.

Two Subcontractors, Three Airlines

The unions have been in talks with LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet for over a year and the contracts became amendable in late 2018.

The two catering companies subcontract with United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines. A small number of food workers are also directly employed by United.

LSG Sky Chefs didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Gate Gourmet declined an interview but said in a statement it wants a new agreement quickly, though aviation negotiations “can be lengthy.”

“Gate Gourmet continues to work in good faith with the Union and federally appointed mediator to make improvements for our people across wages and benefits as we have in the past,” the company said.

No Time to Wait

Airline catering workers can’t wait years for a new contract, according to UNITE HERE President D. Taylor. They’re suffering in poverty now, he said.

He called the contract fight, in which some workers make less than $9 an hour and pay hundreds a month on health care, a “moral imperative.”

“I fight because I don’t want to continue to struggle,” Washington-based LSG Sky Chefs employee Tenae Stover told Bloomberg Law during a strike vote at DCA. “I don’t want my co-workers to go through what I went through because Sky Chefs doesn’t want to pay us enough.”

Stover, who prepares cold foods for the caterer, was evicted from her housing shortly after taking the job and had to move in with a family member due to limited finances.

Sonia Toledo, a catering worker in Miami, said that after more than 15 years of working for LSG Sky Chefs, she makes $12.21 an hour and must pay $50 a week for health insurance. She said she wasn’t afraid to go on strike. “We have nothing to lose because we don’t have anything,” Toledo said.

The unions are negotiating with Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs but the unions’ fight is largely with three big U.S. air carriers, according to Taylor. He said those airlines should allocate more money in their contracts to properly pay workers.

Lending a Hand

Other labor organizations already are offering support for the airline catering strike.

Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson flew to Las Vegas for UNITE HERE’s constitutional convention June 26, telling delegates that flight attendants stand with the catering workers.

Nelson told Bloomberg Law that her union has been helping UNITE HERE plan for a potential strike, using its experience in prior airline strikes. She said “shared solidarity” is important.

“There’s this growing, real community around solidarity and around our common work space,” Nelson said. “It overlaps.”

Nelson is helping UNITE HERE adapt a “chaos model” learned in earlier strikes that would allow the union to rotate strike locations and timing in a way that would prevent management from making strike preparations. Flight attendants have a long history of strikes, including a 1993 strike by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants against American Airlines and another strike by the AFA against Alaska Airlines in 1993.

Even the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions with more than 12 million members, is lending a hand. The federation’s number two leader, Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, spoke at a rally of DCA catering workers on June 12.

“With the political climate we’re in, with the attacks we’re seeing on workers and unions, and the record profits companies are making—it’s high time that working people got their fair share and not just sitting back and taking it, but demanding,” Shuler said before the rally.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Wallender in Washington at awallender@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cynthia Harasty at charasty@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com