11,000 US airline catering workers vote for strike

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Unite Here Local 2 airline workers in San Francisco campaign to raise their pay

THOUSANDS of airline food workers have voted to authorise a strike across the US.

The strike will be enormous as more than 11,000 workers who prepare food for American, United and Delta airlines in 28 cities across the US took part in the vote.

The union representing the workers says that if approved they will call the strike this summer.

The catering workers, some of whom earn as little as $8.46 an hour, are demanding higher wages and less costly health insurance.

The strike has the potential to ground planes, if the airlines cannot provide food for the flights says Unite Here, the hospitality-industry union which represents airline catering employees.

Unite Here is negotiating on behalf of some 3,270 Gate Gourmet employees and nearly 7,700 Sky Chefs employees who service flights for American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines at major hubs.

The union is also in talks with United on behalf of 2,600 food workers directly employed by the airline who are not covered by a contract.

The airline workers would need permission from the National Mediation Board (NMB), which mediates labour issues in the airline and railway industries, to call a strike. Jobs in the transportation sector are covered by the Railway Labor Act, intended to prevent disruptions in the travel industry due to its potential impact on interstate commerce.

Unite Here said it would petition the federal board later this summer for clearance to call a legal walkout. Should the panel grant the union’s request, a 30-day ‘cool down’ period would ensue before workers could call a strike.

‘In the past two weeks, airline catering workers voted overwhelmingly yes to authorise a strike, a result that points both to the crisis of poverty wages and unaffordable health care in the airline catering industry, and to workers’ willingness to do whatever it takes within legal means to make a change,’ Unite Here International President Taylor said in a statement.

Gate Gourmet employees earn as little as $8.46 per hour, and most airline food workers earn less than $15 an hour, some after more than 40 years on the job, according to Unite Here. Many of the workers go without health insurance because they cannot afford the $500 monthly premiums to enroll in family healthcare plans.

Meanwhile, grocery workers in California in the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union are also voting for strike action.

The vote is designed to put pressure on supermarket employers; the next three-day round of negotiations begin on July 10.

After four months of fruitless contract negotiations with Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and Ralphs, the seven UFCW locals are holding membership meetings where strike votes are being tallied.

Meetings last Monday for Local 324, which represents Orange County workers, saw a packed auditorium with a charged-up membership, said Greg Conger, the local’s president.

Conger said the turnouts and the level of enthusiasm were on a par with the reactions in 2003 and 2004 when that decade’s contract cycle quickly devolved into a strike and lockout that lasted more than four months.

He said many members on Monday criticised store executives whom they say are ‘low-balling’ their employees, an American saying which means to ‘offer a deceptively or unrealistically low bid.’

‘The chains’ bargainers at the table don’t care about what the employees think, and the employees are angry,’ Conger said. ‘The chains just want to save as much money as possible.’

Joe Duffle, president of Inland Empire-based Local 1167, also said turnouts have been strong and workers are angry. ‘The cost of living keeps going up, and our wages are not keeping pace,’ he said.

UFCW insists the latest contract offer will cut salaries for general merchandise clerks and also reduce the pay of cashiers by downgrading their job classifications. Other workers would see pay raises of less than 1%.

Also, the union said the chains want to cut funding to the health care plan to the point where it could go bankrupt.

Mike Shimpock, a spokesman for Los Angeles-based Local 770, said Ralphs’ parent company Kroger Co. had promised to use tax cuts enacted under President Donald Trump to benefit employees.

‘Instead, they gave raises of between 20% to 34% to their top executives, and offered the employees less than 1%,’ he said.

  • A New 50-State Analysis shows how American workers who report employer misconduct face ‘rampant retaliation’.

The report states that social justice movements, such as the Fight for $15, #MeToo, and striking Uber drivers, rely on workers to come forward to assert their rights – but workers who dare challenge an employer’s policies or misconduct know that they will almost certainly face retaliation. Even highly-paid Google workers have been forced to protest, retaliation following a mass walkout criticising Google’s handling of sexual harassment.

The new National Employment Law Project (NELP) survey of laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia shows, however, that state laws overwhelmingly fail to provide workers with essential retaliation protections.

In ‘Exposing Wage Theft Without Fear: States Must Protect Workers from Retaliation,’ NELP offers a first-of-its-kind analysis focusing on how state laws protect – or fail to protect – workers when they challenge wage theft by lodging complaints with employers or government agencies, filing lawsuits, or engaging in public actions, for example.

‘It is more important than ever to ensure that state laws offer workers strong retaliation protections. The future of workplace conditions and workers’ ability to organise depends on having strong retaliation protections in each and every state,’ said Laura Huizar, senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project and author of the new report.

This is especially true in the wake of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) general counsel’s position, articulated in a case recently, that workers who file lawsuits or complaints with government agencies will no longer be entitled to the National Labor Relations Act’s retaliation protections, under the theory that state laws already address retaliation.

Patricia Smith, senior counsel at NELP, former US solicitor of labour, and former New York State labour commissioner, stated: ‘A worker protection law that does not guarantee strong protection from retaliation will fail to accomplish its objectives.

‘Government agencies and courts at the state and federal levels that have responsibility for enforcing workplace laws ultimately rely on workers coming forward to tell their stories. We cannot expect workers to risk everything without meaningful retaliation protections that can also deter employers from retaliating in the first place.’

The new report’s key findings include the following:

  • Workers in the US generally bear the burden of enforcing their own labor protections – it is up to them to come forward to report violations.
  • Retaliation takes many shapes and can be difficult to pinpoint or prove. Employers, for example, may fire a worker, demote a worker, reduce a worker’s hours, threaten to report a worker or a worker’s family member to immigration authorities, and much more.
  • Retaliation and the fear of retaliation are pervasive for workers across industries and demographics, although low-wage workers, immigrant workers, and women workers are particularly vulnerable.
  • When workers experience retaliation for trying to protect their rights, the costs can quickly escalate financially and emotionally. A worker may experience lost pay, for example, which can quickly lead to missed payments, lower credit scores, eviction, repossession of a car or other property, suspension of a license, inability to pay child support or taxes, attorney’s fees and costs, stress, trauma, and more.
  • NELP evaluated state retaliation protections in the wage theft context to assess which ones offer the most essential protections: (1) a right to monetary damages; (2) a right for workers who prevail in their case to recover attorney’s fees and costs; (3) a right to bring a retaliation complaint to a government agency and also directly to court; and (4) a right for the government to impose a fine.
  • Only six states – Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Oregon, and the District of Columbia – have laws that offer essential retaliation protections for workers challenging wage theft.
  • Six states – Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming – do not have any laws on the books to protect workers who challenge wage theft from retaliation.
  • Seven states – Alaska, Kansas, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia – have laws that only create criminal penalties for employers who retaliate against workers when workers challenge wage theft, leaving workers at the mercy of law enforcement agencies that may or may not take up their case.

• While NELP’s analysis of state laws focuses on laws in the minimum wage context, the stark absence of strong protections nationwide very likely reflects similar gaps when it comes to other workplace protections, such as employment discrimination and harassment, health and safety, and paid sick leave.