Ringko Felix didn’t consider himself a trailblazer when he arrived in Denver in the fall of 1998. He certainly didn’t anticipate becoming the seed for an entire community of Pacific Islanders that has since sprouted and grown in Colorado. When he first gazed upon the Denver skyline twenty years ago, he was simply exploring the city as a place where his family might resettle.
The idea of moving to the Mile High City had come from a close friend, Mikel Buliche, who was working in the Chelsea catering kitchen, then under contract with Continental Airlines at Denver International Airport. Buliche’s job duties involved prepping thousands of in-flight meals to be served each day to Continental customers cruising at 39,000 feet. Felix wasn’t particularly interested in the food-prep aspect of the gig. But Buliche, who’d come to Colorado for a university program and worked in the kitchen to make ends meet, persuaded Felix to join him at Chelsea when he mentioned the job’s two special flight benefits. Kitchen employees had access to standby flight tickets on planes that still had empty seats right before departure; they only had to cover taxes on the tickets. And there were also “buddy passes” for employees, fully paid flight vouchers that kitchen employees could give to friends or family members. Those tickets, too, were free, beyond the taxes that would be deducted from the employees’ paychecks.
Both perks were a draw for Felix, since he realized that he would be able not only to afford to visit family members in his homeland of Chuuk, one of the island states within the Federated States of Micronesia, but also to move them to Colorado. The collective islands of Chuuk State, all 46 square miles of them, have a population of 49,000 and are located some 6,500 miles from Denver, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Round-trip flights between Denver and Chuuk usually cost between $2,000 and $3,000. With the flight benefits from the Chelsea kitchen, the cost would be a fraction of that.
Moreover, Felix knew that he could get work in this country under a special visa arrangement that the United States has with three nations in the Pacific Islands. Under the Compact of Free Association, citizens of the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia can work in the U.S. indefinitely, even though they are not considered full-fledged U.S. citizens.
Soon after Felix started working at the airport, he decided that his visit would turn into a permanent stay. He had already been looking around the United States, and had even done a stint in Seattle, but the flight benefits in Denver were a major selling point. After about a year of prepping meals, saving money and assessing education opportunities for his children, he used his buddy passes to fly his wife and eight kids to Colorado. Some of Felix’s children subsequently got their own jobs at the Chelsea kitchen, and it became a family affair. That second generation of workers used their own flight benefits to visit the islands and fly in additional family members and friends.
Over time, more and more Chuukese moved from the faraway islands to Denver; the migration that Felix had kickstarted created a community of roughly 1,000 Micronesians living in and around Denver today. Other groups of Pacific Islanders grew the same way, including an influx of approximately 400 people from the Marshall Islands. Today, 35 percent of the 600 workers at the Chelsea kitchen — approximately 210 people — are from the Pacific Islands.
But now that trend may be coming to an end.
The free-flight deals are in jeopardy. United Airlines, which has managed the Chelsea kitchen since merging with Continental Airlines in 2010, is currently threatening to take away the flight benefits in response to an organizing effort by workers at five of its kitchens across the country, including the one in Denver. In their campaign to unionize, workers are calling for better pay, job security and lower insurance costs. According to Joel Pally of Unite Here!, which is helping to organize the United Airlines employees and represents over 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 does not already have a union.
But is becoming part of a union worth sacrificing the benefits that have allowed thousands of Pacific Islanders to congregate in Colorado? The original families who led the migration from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands think the answer is yes, even though they know that unionizing could leave them high and dry.
On a recent Friday, Sylvister Ralpho and Valerie Felix tend to their one-year-old twins, both crying after waking up from a nap at the family’s home in Green Valley Ranch. Ralpho looks like he could use a nap himself; he just got off a twelve-hour shift at Chelsea. Valerie no longer works at the airport, but she did for five years. Now she has her hands full managing three kids, including a five-year-old daughter.
On the wall of their living room is a large banner bearing the twins’ faces. The parents recently hosted a huge first-birthday bash for the children, an important cultural event for Pacific Islanders, similar to what quinceañeras are for Latin American communities. Big celebrations are held in large, rented event spaces, with bountiful amounts of food set out for scores of attendees. Pacific Islanders living in Denver understand that their favorite homeland delicacies are not the easiest (or freshest) items to obtain in Colorado, and that list includes Ralpho’s go-to dish: thick slabs of raw tuna with a hint of soy sauce, lemon and lime. Colorado is not known for some other favorites, including tropical fruits such as mango, coconut and guava.
Still, the birthday party was a big success, made bigger still because it was a joint Chuukese-Marshallese soirée. Ralpho is a member of one of the first Marshallese families to move to Denver; just as Valerie’s father, Ringko Felix, started the wave of Chuukese immigration to Denver, Ralpho’s father, also named Sylvister, came to Denver alone, got a job at the Chelsea kitchen, then used his flight benefits to bring his wife and six kids to Colorado in 2001.
The two communities — Chuukese and Marshallese — have a lot of crossover. For instance, although they attend different churches, religion is central to both cultures. “So there are two things that bring us together: church and Chelsea,” says Ralpho. In the case of the Marshallese community, most families are part of a Christian congregation known as the Assembly of God, which usually meets in people’s homes but occasionally rents space at the Wellspring Church on Chambers Road in Aurora.
Beyond the catering kitchen and their churches, there aren’t many go-to gathering places for Pacific Islanders in Denver, and the community as a whole is quite poor. “No one has money to start a business,” Ralpho notes.
While new generations of Pacific Islanders, including those born in this country, seem to have adjusted to life in Colorado, few have put down permanent roots here. Either they can’t afford to buy homes or they simply choose not to, so that they have more flexibility if they decide to move back home. Instead, many families look for rental houses wherever they can afford them, which has resulted in the majority of Pacific Islanders settling around Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and Aurora, along the I-225 corridor.
Twenty of her relatives all live in one house in Aurora, Valerie says. They’ll provide free rent to newcomers in the catering kitchen who send all of their excess earnings back to family members on Chuuk.
There are many reasons that Pacific Islanders have moved to Colorado, Ralpho says, though they all share a common gripe when they first arrive here from a tropical island: winter.
“People come here for better job opportunities and education,” Ralpho explains. The Pacific Islands lack natural resources and have some of the highest unemployment rates in the world; in 2006, 36 percent of adults were without work in the Marshall Islands, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Before the United States set up military bases in the region, supplying jobs, cash and protection in return for carte blanche to operate in the area, the majority of islanders engaged in subsistence farming and fishing.
And there are other motivations for moving, Ralpho continues. In recent years, people have departed the Pacific Islands in increasing numbers as their homes have started to disappear underwater. Ralpho visits the Marshall Islands every year, and he says he’s astonished by how much beachfront has been lost to rising sea levels. And the trend is only accelerating: A 2015 New York Times feature, “The Marshall Islands Are Disappearing,” cites climate data estimating that sea levels will rise one to four feet by the end of the 21st century. Most of the Marshall Islands are less than six feet above sea level.
Another reason stems from an uncomfortable chapter in U.S. history. “We still have people who are affected by the bombs,” Ralpho says.
Beginning in 1946 and lasting until 1962, the United States military tested 107 nuclear weapons on and around the Marshall Islands. The area was dubbed the Pacific Proving Grounds, within which 210 megatons of radioactive explosives were detonated. “The biggest one they dropped was called ‘Bravo,’” says Ralpho. “That’s the one that still — after generations — people are getting sick from and dying young from cancer.” While the U.S military forced locals to move off the Bikini Islands, where the fifteen-megaton explosive was detonated, the 1954 “Castle Bravo” test was so powerful that its fallout reached surrounding inhabited islands.
One motivator for the Compact of Free Association that allows people like Ralpho to work in the United States can be chalked up to this government’s guilt over the residual effects of nuclear tests. When the compact was signed in 1983, it established the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, through which the United States has paid out $759 million to Marshall Islanders as compensation for exposure to radioactive fallout, according to the Brookings Institute.
The compact also paved the way for a number of Marshallese communities to spring up in the United States. Outside of Hawaii, the largest community of people from the Marshall Islands — over 4,000 strong — is in Springdale, Arkansas. As in Denver, the basis for that community is a single, large place of employment: a Tyson chicken factory.
But while Pacific Islanders enjoy a streamlined route to work in Colorado, their jobs at United’s DIA kitchen haven’t always made for smooth sailing.
Patrick Sangau makes less than $12 an hour at the catering facility; like nearly all of the 210 or so Pacific Islanders working there, Sangau, a 43-year-old father of three, does so primarily for flight benefits, so that he can visit his extended family in Micronesia. His particular task is tossing salad and divvying it up onto 1,000 individual trays served on United’s airplanes each day. While he’s on the job, he spends hours at a time inside an industrial refrigeration unit where the temperature hovers between 34 and 38 degrees.
Since their unionizing efforts began in January, Sangau and other workers say the airline has been pushing back aggressively.
“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,” says Marie Jacob. “And they’ve been putting all of these posters on the walls in different languages. They tell lies, like we’ll [have to] pay high union dues.”
Jacob, too, works for United primarily for flight benefits; she uses hers to visit the Marshall Islands and says it’s the only way she can afford to travel there 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 of Unite Here! “So for these communities, this kitchen is the major source of employment.”
And the Pacific Islands are a major source of loyal workers for United. Sangau and Jacob describe a bizarre occurrence earlier this year when the company flew in a manager from the island of Chuuk 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 benefits, 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. “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.
After Westword provided the airline with a list of specific allegations by employees, United responded 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.”
Sangau and Jacob do not feel respected. “We are not just speaking for ourselves; we’re also speaking for our 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 say that they can’t afford insurance for their own children. While Jacob says she pays for the insurance that United offers, she recently had to tell her son that she couldn’t afford the $200 deductible at the dentist’s office to take care of his toothache.
Catering employees also claim that United uses a draconian system to monitor workers, which can result in termination if employees get up to seven “points.” Since they can rack up points for things like calling in sick to work, some workers choose to prep food even when they are ill, putting United Airlines customers at risk because they might be eating contaminated food on flights.
Despite the company’s intimidation tactics, Pally says, 76 percent of employees at the five United kitchen facilities in Denver, Newark, Houston, Honolulu and Cleveland voted in mid-January to hold a union election.
The overwhelming support for a union is evident in the pro-union “swag” workers wear to work each day — including pins, lanyards and hats — that are all bright red and stick out against United’s blue uniforms.
Denver’s Pacific Islanders and other United catering workers are now 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 election will be and then mail out ballots for a final determination on whether to unionize. Pally says that United Airlines has tried to stall this process, claiming that its immigrant workers weren’t capable of reading and understanding what they were signing when they initially decided to hold an election. But he maintains that the process is moving forward — even though he doesn’t have a firm date for the next step.
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“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.”
Ralpho and Valerie Felix also display pro-union swag at their home in Green Valley Ranch. The couple, both direct descendants of the pioneers who laid the foundations for the Chuukese and Marshallese communities in Denver, say that they support unionizing and don’t anticipate that their friends and family will back down, citing the tenacity and mutual support systems of Pacific Islanders. They’ve endured a lot, and they have each other’s backs.
“We’re the best and hardest workers they have, and if they get rid of the flight benefit, half the people will walk out,” Valerie promises. “That’s why we’ll win.”
This is an expansion of Chris Walker's earlier news story on the unionizing effort.