United Airlines Catering Workers Unionize and DIA $15 Minimum Wage Advances

Airport workers supporting a $15 minimum wage gather in front of the City and County Building on Tuesday.
Airport workers supporting a $15 minimum wage gather in front of the City and County Building on Tuesday. UNITE HERE
On Tuesday afternoon, a coalition of low-wage employees who work at Denver International Airport gathered in front of the Denver Elections Division to make two related announcements: They were turning in more than 17,000 signatures to get a $15 minimum wage initiative for DIA workers on the May 2019 ballot, and 2,700 United Airlines catering workers around the country, including 550 from DIA, had voted to unionize.

The announcements mark significant developments in two campaigns Westword has covered, especially the unionizing effort among United Airlines catering workers, which we explored in our April 26, 2018, cover story, "Last Resort."

Tuesday’s news that catering workers won their union election marks the conclusion of a long fight between the workers and United Airlines, one that has had profound effects on a community of immigrants in metro Denver.

The majority of workers at United's catering kitchen at DIA are immigrants or people of color, and approximately 210 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). The company also extends to workers a “buddy pass” perk, which Pacific Islander employees have used to fly 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, more than 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 United Airlines catering employees have wanted to unionize because they say they receive low pay and inadequate health insurance, and sometimes work in harsh conditions, including spending hours at a time in industrial-sized refrigerators. United Airlines, some employees told us, has not responded kindly to the unionizing effort, including threatening to terminate 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 a union election weren't valid since non-English speakers didn’t know what they were requesting. In late August, the board overseeing the union election, the National Mediation Board, rejected that claim, allowing the union election to move forward.

The National Mediation Board has just revealed the results of the election: 72 percent of United catering workers voted to join the union. They include 2,700 employees at airport kitchens in Newark, Houston, Cleveland, Honolulu and Denver.
click to enlarge A procession walks to the Denver Elections Division to turn in signatures on Tuesday. - UNITE HERE
A procession walks to the Denver Elections Division to turn in signatures on Tuesday.
“From the beginning, we knew exactly what we wanted: We wanted a union,” says Solomon Jacklick, who has worked in the Denver kitchen for three years. “United tried everything it possibly could to tell us what we needed and didn’t need, and to discourage us from voting yes for the union. None of it worked, because we always knew that we deserved this. I’m ready to start negotiating our first contract.”

Indeed, the next step is negotiating, and both United Airlines and the catering workers’ new union representatives need to come to the table and agree upon wages, terms and other employment conditions.

United is not unfamiliar with unions; 80 percent of its other direct-contract employees are unionized, according to UNITE HERE, the organization behind the catering workers’ campaign.

On Tuesday at the Denver Elections Division, workers also celebrated turning in way more signatures — 17,000 — than needed (4,726) to get a measure on the next municipal ballot that would raise the minimum wage for airport workers to $15 an hour by 2021.

Organizers and supporters of the ballot initiative — including UNITE HERE Local 23, the Denver Area Labor Federation, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and Together Colorado — have pointed out how DIA is thriving and will benefit from billions in additional investments during the coming years, while workers employed by some companies operating at the airport make just over $10 an hour.

“This is a historic day for Denver’s airport workers and, by extension, the Denver community,” said Kevin Abels, Denver president of UNITE HERE Local 23. “On the same day that Denver’s labor market sees its largest union election victory in years, thousands of DIA workers can celebrate the advancement of the campaign to place the Denver Airport Minimum Wage Initiative on the May 2019 Denver citywide ballot that will change the lives of thousands of families.”

The next step for supporters of the ballot initiative is waiting for the Denver Elections Division to approve the signatures and determine whether the question will officially be put to Denver voters next May.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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