Activism

Catering Workers at DIA Trying to Unionize Take Fight to United Airlines Headquarters

Participants at the demonstration at DIA on Wednesday, May 23, gather for a group photo.
Participants at the demonstration at DIA on Wednesday, May 23, gather for a group photo. Courtesy of Joel Pally
Marie Jacob felt nervous as she gazed up at the 1,729-foot-tall Willis Sears Tower in Chicago. It seemed to her like a physical representation of the David vs. Goliath fight that she and fellow catering workers at Denver International Airport and four other airports in the U.S. are engaged in with their employer, United Airlines, over whether they can unionize.

Jacob had traveled to Chicago specifically to confront United Airlines' top brass on Wednesday, May 23, at the company's headquarters inside the famous tower, where United also hosted its annual shareholders' meeting that day.

Despite her nerves, Jacob drew strength from the thought that seven demonstrations were simultaneously being held around the country on Wednesday, including at DIA, in support of the unionizing effort.

In the case of Denver, approximately fifty United catering workers were joined by another fifty supporters including machinists, flight attendants, representatives of the Service Employees International Union and immigrant-rights advocates on the plaza between the Westin Hotel and Jeppesen Terminal at 2 p.m. They hoisted signs declaring “United Airlines doesn't care about immigrant workers” and chanted “Let us vote!”

click to enlarge COURTESY OF JOEL PALLY
Courtesy of Joel Pally
As Westword explained in the April 26 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 600 workers there are Pacific Islanders, who have formed a community in Denver specifically around employment at the catering kitchen, since jobs there come with flight benefits allowing workers to travel at very low costs to the Pacific Islands (mostly the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands). United Airlines also gives workers “buddy passes,” which Pacific Islanders have used over nearly two decades to fly in relatives who then 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. (Jacob, for instance, is from the Marshall Islands)

But as our story detailed, workers claim that — flight benefits aside — they receive low pay and inadequate health insurance, and sometimes work in harsh conditions. That's why they're looking to form a union, but United Airlines has not been on board with the effort, and workers at DIA say that the company has been threatening to terminate their employee flight benefits, which in turn threatens the entire Pacific Islander community in Denver.

On Wednesday, over 100 people chanted and hoisted signs at DIA for two hours. Joel Pally, an organizer with Unite Here!, which is helping the catering workers with their unionizing effort, says that the purpose of the demonstration was to show United Airlines management that a majority of its catering workers support unionizing. It was also a call for the company to stop putting out misinformation about what workers would pay in union dues, and to yhystop intimidating employees with threats to remove flight benefits.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF JOEL PALLY
Courtesy of Joel Pally
Pally adds that the group had obtained permits for the demonstration at DIA, using a permit application procedure that's been refined since confusion around the large demonstrations at the airport following Donald Trump's announcement of his first travel ban in late January 2017.

Meanwhile in Chicago, Jacob entered the shareholders' meeting and had an opportunity to ask United's CEO, Oscar Munoz, a couple of tough questions during a Q+A period.

“I asked, 'Why does United treat immigrant catering workers different from other employees in the company?'” she recalls. “I also told [Munoz] that we've received threats [at DIA] that we could lose our flight benefits. He responded that, no, they don't threaten us."

United issued this statement to Westword about the catering workers' allegations: “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.”

Even though the company's CEO dismissed her claims of intimidation, Jacob was able to deliver a petition with signatures that were collected from more than half of the catering workers at United's kitchen at DIA during the past two weeks, she says.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF JOEL PALLY
Courtesy of Joel Pally
The continued show of support for unionizing is important as the fight moves forward, adds Pally. He says United has stalled the process by telling the governing body overseeing a potential vote, the National Mediation Board, that United's immigrant workers didn't know what they were signing last year when they submitted enough signatures to initiate an election.

In response, the National Mediation Board, an independent agency of the U.S. government that handles labor relations in the railroad and airline industries, has sent an investigative team to various United Airlines kitchens to ascertain whether a majority of workers do in fact want to hold a union election.

"That investigation is ongoing," Pally says. "From what we know, investigators have talked to workers at Newark. And now they are in Hawaii. From what we've heard, workers were really excited to have the investigators come because a lot of workers see it as their opportunity to finally tell the government the truth.

"They're making progress, and they'll eventually make their way to Denver," he adds. "The investigation will run its course, and we're confident that they will give us our chance to vote."
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker