Same Union Behind Marriott Walkout Threatens Strike Against SFO Airline Food Contractors

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A view of the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Nearly 1,600 airline catering workers at San Francisco International Airport are voting this week to authorize their union to call a strike.

The workers are represented by Unite Here, the same labor organization that staged a months-long strike at Marriott hotels in the Bay Area and across the country last fall, and are among more than 18,000 airline food workers nationwide holding strike authorization votes over the next two weeks.

The union is seeking higher wages and less expensive health care plans for its workers. Currently, workers pay an average monthly premium of $800 for family coverage, it said.

Unite Here leaders believe the action against Marriott gives them leverage in their dealings with food contractors hired by Delta, American and United Airlines.

"Our members are willing to strike," said Rachel Gumpert, Unite Here's national press secretary. "The courage of the Marriott strikers continues to embolden and inspire the workers who are taking strike votes in 21 cities against the airlines in the next few weeks."

The workers, who are represented by the union's Local 2 unit, are employed by Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, which provide food and beverages to airline passengers.

"These are people who are making poverty wages," Gumpert said. "They are workers who are working multiple jobs, who are working sometimes more than 100 hours a week."

The median wage for catering employees at SFO is $18.66 an hour, according to Unite Here. Minimum wage at the airport is $17 and is due to increase to $17.66 in July.

Unite Here says the current wages are too low for its members to afford a place to live in much of the Bay Area.

In October, nearly 2,500 Unite Here Local 2 members went on strike against seven Marriott hotels in San Francisco. Union workers at the company's hotels in San Jose, Oakland and several other cities walked off the job as well.

"We want the raises to be significant enough that just like the Marriott strikes in San Francisco, workers are able to start quitting their second jobs or relying on extensive amounts of overtime just to avoid being homeless," Gumpert said, noting that the union has not yet settled on specific wage-increase demands.

After the 9/11 terrorist attack, Gumpert said, unions that represent airline workers made significant concessions because the airline industry was struggling. But other airline workers, like flight attendants and pilots, have been able to improve their contract agreements, she added.

"Our members still haven't been able to do that," she said.

Representatives for Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs say the companies are trying to resolve the dispute.

"Gate Gourmet continues to work in good faith with the union and federally appointed mediator to make improvements for our people across wages and benefits as we have in the past," spokeswoman spokeswoman Nancy Jewell said in an emailed statement.

"While our goal is to reach a new agreement as quickly as possible, the negotiations process can be lengthy," Jewell said.

"Our company values the hard work and dedication of our team members. Wages, as well as other benefits, including vacations, uniforms, and company provided meals, as well as health and welfare, are subject to the collecting bargaining process between our company and their union representatives," Sky Chefs said in a statement.

American Airlines does not anticipate that the labor dispute will impact its operations, according to Josh Freed, a company spokesman, who said the airline is monitoring talks between its catering contractors and its workers.

Representatives at Delta and United have yet to comment.

The employees, who have an existing contract, plan to vote Tuesday and Friday. Results of the strike authorization vote are set to be announced by this weekend. And because they work at an airport, they would need to get authorization from the National Mediation Board, an independent federal agency, in order to walk off the job.

Nathanael Baquedano, who prepares alcoholic beverages that go onto United Airlines flights, said he would vote to authorize the strike to push for more affordable health care and higher wages. Baquedano has worked for the same catering subcontractor for more than 20 years, but said he still has to work a second job driving for Uber to make ends meet.

"I have to work 12 to 14 hours a day," he said. "I feel bad with myself because I can’t have enough time with my family. And United Airlines is a big company, they make millions of dollars every year."