SFO loader Roberto Alvarez joins a union protest blocking an entrance to American Airlines' headquarters on Tuesday. Four SFO workers, including Alvarez, were arrested. (Courtesy Unite Here Local 2)
Four members of Unite Here Local 2 — the local union threatening to strike against catering companies at San Francisco International Airport — were among dozens arrested during a labor protest at American Airlines' Fort Worth, Texas headquarters on Tuesday.
Airline catering workers represented by Unite Here blocked an entrance to the company's offices in an act of civil disobedience aimed at drawing increased attention to a nationwide labor dispute.
"I don't make enough and there's people who make less than I do, and American Airlines makes billions of dollars in profit," said Roberto Alvarez, a loader at SFO, in a phone interview from the scene of the protest. "I'm willing to do this to send a message to American Airlines that we need better pay and health care."
Alvarez, Unite Here Local 2 President Ananda Singh, the unit's food service director Lorraine Powell and another worker, Linda Fajarado, were among those arrested, according to a union spokesman.
In all, 58 people were arrested at the demonstration, said Forth Worth Police Officer J. Pollani. The protesters face a charge of obstructing streets and sidewalks and a $274 fine, Pollani said in an email.
"I took arrest today because even though I load carts full of food and beverage for American Airlines flights, I’m uninsured and have to go to a free clinic,” Alvarez said in a union statement following his arrest.
"My company insurance is so expensive that I can’t afford it, and I don’t think that’s right. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make one job enough.”
The demonstration comes two months after an overwhelming majority of the nearly 1,600 Unite Here Local 2 workers at SFO employed by airline contractors Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet voted to authorize their union leadership to call a strike. The companies provide food and beverage services to several airlines, including American.
Unite Here, which staged a months-long strike at Marriott hotels in the Bay Area and across the country last fall, say catering workers at local divisions at 32 other airports have authorized walkouts as well.
Through a spokesman, Sky Chefs said that since May the firm had been working with a federal mediator in talks with Unite Here.
"Our company has offered improvements in wages, and is discussing numerous other issues covered by our collective bargaining agreement," Sky Chefs said in a statement Tuesday. "While this is a short period of time to negotiate a complex labor agreement, we feel progress is being made with the help of the federal monitor. We remain committed to negotiating in good faith, and we hope that union members will act lawfully as they exercise their right to demonstrate or protest."
Gate Gourmet issued a similar message: "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," the company said.
American Airlines said it hoped the two sides would come to a deal soon and said it expected that agreement would cost it more.
"We believe in the collective bargaining process, and so we are confident that LSG Sky Chefs and Unite Here will come to an agreement that increases pay and benefits for LSG's employees and ensures LSG can continue to operate successfully," the airline said in a statement.
"We understand that a new contract will, ultimately, increase the costs to LSG Sky Chef's customers, including American. While we are not part of the ongoing negotiations, we urge both LSG Sky Chefs and Unite Here to bargain in good faith and get a deal done," the company said.
Unite Here says the median wage for catering workers at SFO is $18.66 an hour, and its members pay an average monthly premium of $800 for family health coverage.
The union's members are not allowed to strike unless they receive permission from the National Mediation Board. Because the employees are employed at an airport, they need authorization from the independent federal agency to walk off the job.
Unite Here has submitted a formal application to the board to strike against Sky Chefs, but has yet to do so in its dispute with Gate Gourmet, according to a union spokesman. A mediation board representative did not return a request for comment.