Patrick Sangau doesn’t work in the catering department of United Airlines for the pay (less than $12 an hour). He doesn’t work there because he particularly enjoys tossing salad and divvying it up into 1,000 trays served on United’s airplanes each day. And he certainly doesn’t like spending hours at a time inside an industrial refrigeration unit where the temperature hovers between 34 and 38 degrees.
The main reason Sangau works for United Airlines is because of his employee flight benefits.
He’s not alone.
About 200 employees of United's catering department at Denver International Airport, or 35 percent of its 570 staffers, are from the Pacific Islands. They hail from places such as Micronesia, Guam, Samoa and the Philippines, which are all practically on the opposite side of the globe and cost between $2,000 and $3,000 round trip to visit from Colorado.
Sangau, a 43-year-old father of three, and other Pacific Islanders working in United’s catering department rely on their standby benefits to visit family on the Pacific Islands. They fly standby from Denver and from the location of their connecting flight and pay only taxes on the flights. The benefit allows Sangau a yearly trip to the small islands of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia, population 49,000.
But now United is threatening to take away the benefit if catering workers in five of its kitchens around the country try to unionize.
According to Joel Pally of Unite Here!, which is helping to organize the United Airlines employees and represents more than 270,000 workers across the food service, airline, transportation and hotel industries, the catering department at United Airlines is the only non-management department in the company that is not unionized.
Pally explains that while catering has traditionally been sub-contracted out within the airline industry, United took on in-house catering at DIA when it merged with Continental Airlines, which had its own kitchen there. Now, workers like Sangau, who spend their days prepping salads and other food, are calling for a union so that they can advocate for higher pay, better insurance and job security.
Sangau and co-worker Marie Jacob describe ways that the airline has been pushing back aggressively against those unionizing efforts.
“The last couple of months, management has been going around to workers, lying and scaring them so that they don't vote for the union,” Jacob says. “And they've been putting all of these posters on the walls in different languages. They tell lies, like we'll pay high union dues."
Like Sangau, Jacob works for United Airlines primarily for her standby flight benefit; it's the only way she can afford to visit the Marshall Islands while making $11.32 an hour and supporting a household of eight.
"To put it in perspective, only .1 percent of Colorado's population is from the Pacific Islands," says Pally. “So for these communities, this kitchen is a major source of employment."
United Airlines knows this, Sangau and Jacob say. Both describe a bizarre occurrence earlier this year when the company flew in a manager from the islands of Chuuk to DIA specifically to speak with Chuukese employees, in their own language, and pressure them not to vote for the union.
According to Sangau and Jacob, the Chuukese manager claimed that catering employees would lose their flight benefit, even though employees in other unionized sectors of the company still have the benefit.
“One woman started yelling ‘You lie! You lie!’ to him,” Jacob remembers of the Chuukese visitor. “Then he turned his back and started talking to someone else.”
Later, the employees say, the company installed TV monitors in the catering department to display anti-union messaging, including claims of high annual dues.
Provided with a list of specific allegations by employees and a request for comment, United Airlines responded to Westword with this statement:
“United Airlines respects our employees’ rights to decide whether labor union representation is likely to serve the best interests of our employees and their families, and we respect all of our employees regardless of whether they choose to be represented by labor unions or not.”
But Sangau and Jacob do not feel respected.
"We are not just speaking for ourselves; we're also speaking for our other co-workers who are afraid that they'll lose their jobs if they open their mouths,” says Jacob.
In addition to wanting higher pay, both Sangau and Jacob say that they can’t afford insurance for their children. Jacob pays for United Airlines’ provided insurance, but recently had to tell her son that she couldn’t afford the $200 deductible at a dentist’s office to take care of his toothache.
The catering employees claim that United Airlines also has a draconian strike system, which can result in termination if employees get up to seven “points.” Points can rack up for things like calling in sick to work, Jacob says, so some workers choose to prep food even when they are ill, putting United Airlines customers at risk because they might be eating contaminated meals.
Yet despite intimidation tactics from the company, Pally says, 76 percent of employees across five United kitchens in Denver, Newark, Houston, Honolulu and Cleveland voted to consider a union.
Sangau and Jacob say the overwhelming support for a union is evident in the pro-union swag that workers are wearing each day — things including pins, lanyards and hats — which are all bright red and stick out on top of United’s blue uniforms.
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Now workers are waiting for the National Mediation Board, an independent agency of the U.S. government that handles labor relations in the railroad and airline industries, to decide when the final vote will be and mail ballots to United's catering workers, who will decide whether to unionize. Pally says that United has tried to stall the process, claiming that its immigrant workers weren't capable of reading and understanding what they were signing when they initially decided to vote. But, Pally notes, the process is definitely moving forward — even though he doesn’t have a firm date when ballots will be sent out.
"When you see a majority of workers come in wearing that pro-union swag, it's a very bold statement about what they believe,” he says. “They want this union, and despite all the fear tactics, they're willing to express their desire for change."
Jacob looks forward to a day when she can afford a $200 dental visit for her son. And she and Sangau still hope to be able to fly thousands of miles to the Pacific Islands once a year using standby flight benefits to see close family members back home.
“Winning this union will be a big difference for us,” Jacob says. “We'll be able to afford our bills. We'll be able to send money to people back home if they ask. It will make a great difference for our family life, our kids."