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United Airlines Catering Workers Will Vote to Unionize

Participants at the demonstration at DIA on Wednesday, May 23, gather for a group photo.EXPAND
Participants at the demonstration at DIA on Wednesday, May 23, gather for a group photo.
Courtesy of Joel Pally
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United Airlines' efforts to block a union election by its catering-kitchen employees at five airports across the U.S. did not pass muster with the government agency that oversees labor relations in the railroad and airline industries. Late last week, the National Mediation Board ruled that United's catering employees — including 570 at the company's kitchen at Denver International Airport — can proceed with a vote on whether to unionize. The vote will take place via mail-in ballots during the coming weeks.

According to union organizer Joel Pally of UNITE HERE, which is advocating on behalf of United employees, United had challenged the vote earlier this year, claiming that although 76 percent of catering employees across the nation had requested a union election, many of them didn't understand petitions they were signing because they are immigrants and have a poor grasp of English. In a report released on August 22 by the National Mediation Board, United is also shown to have alleged that employees were coerced into signing petitions supporting a union election.

Indeed, immigrant identity at United's kitchens — especially the kitchen at DIA — is an important part of this story. As Westword explained in the April 26, 2018, cover story, “Last Resort,” a majority of workers at United's catering kitchen at DIA are immigrants or people of color. Moreover, approximately 210 of the workers there are Pacific Islanders, who have formed a community in Denver specifically around employment at the kitchen, since jobs come with flight benefits that allow workers to travel at low costs back to the Pacific Islands (mostly the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands).

Micronesia is located about 6,500 miles from Denver in the Pacific Ocean.
Micronesia is located about 6,500 miles from Denver in the Pacific Ocean.
iStock and Wikipedia

Using the company's “buddy pass” perk, Pacific Islander employees have flown in relatives who can work in the U.S. indefinitely under the Compact of Free Association, a special visa arrangement the United States has with a number of Pacific Island nations and states. Today, over 1,000 Micronesians live in and around Denver — nearly all of them with family members working for United. Other groups of Pacific Islanders in Denver have grown the same way, including an influx of approximately 400 people from the Marshall Islands.

But as our story also detailed, flight benefits aside, United employees say they receive low pay, inadequate health insurance and sometimes work in harsh conditions, including spending hours at a time in industrial-sized refrigerators — all of which has led to their effort to unionize. Workers also say that United has threatened to terminate their employee flight benefits, which in turn threatens the entire Pacific Islander community in Denver. The company later challenged the union election on the grounds that the original petitions requesting an election weren't valid.

The National Mediation Board sent UNITE HERE and United Airlines a report late last week explaining how the agency had sent interviewers to all five airports with United catering kitchens. The investigators randomly selected workers and asked them how they learned of the effort to unionize, what they understood of that effort, and, if they were among the 76 percent of workers who requested an election, if they knew what they were signing.

United Airlines Catering Workers Will Vote to UnionizeEXPAND
Courtesy of Joel Pally

Pally says that the National Mediation Board has requested the home mailing addresses of all the employees from United so that they can be sent a mail-in ballot. “People haven't received those ballots yet, but we expect them to get them imminently,” Pally says.

United had responded to previous requests for comment on the union election with the following 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 Pally fires back. “That statement is totally divorced from the reality on the ground. If they really respected workers' right to vote, they wouldn't have put in all this effort to delay or block the vote,” he says.

UNITE HERE is also gathering signatures to place an initiative on the May 2019 ballot in Denver to raise the minimum wage of all airport workers at DIA to $15 an hour. That signature-gathering campaign kicked off on August 23.

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