Hundreds of Workers Protest at SFO

Protestors sit in front of American Airlines check-in at SFO. (Kate Wolffe/KQED)

A few hundred workers picketed outside SFO and blocked American Airlines' check-in area on Tuesday to protest working conditions. It was part of a coordinated protest organized by Unite Here at 17 airports across the country on one of the busiest travel days.

"The reason we're here is for health insurance and a pay raise," said Charles Hannan, who works cleaning planes. "We have to work six days per week, so our bodies are beaten. We're tired. We need some kind of health care for our families. We had to get a second job because it's not enough. I mean, American Airlines makes billions of dollars a year in profit. We're just looking for a little bit to get ahead, so we can take care of our families."

The catering workers are employed by LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, which big airlines then subcontract with to provide on-board food and beverages. Although they prepare food for multiple airlines, the group was targeting American Airlines because it's the biggest airline in the industry.

It's part of a coordinated strategy to pressure the airline to step in and influence contract negotiations.

Ted Waechter, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 2, said there have been instances where the catering companies have said they couldn't resolve an issue without consulting the airline.

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"So we know that American Airlines, as the industry leader, as the biggest airline, can absolutely set the standard to get involved, have the workers' backs and say, 'We don't want the folks who cater our flights to be living in poverty,'" he said.

Contract negotiations between the workers and the catering companies have been ongoing for about a year and are currently stalled around issues of pay, safety and rising healthcare costs.

Healthcare premiums for company-backed plans, said Waechter, are up to $800/month. But the catering workers at SFO make around $16-18/hour. San Francisco minimum wage is $15.60. In other cities, the minimum wage is less and part of the nationwide demand is for a standard of $15/hour.

Many of the workers have to take on second jobs, said Hanna. "We have to work six days a week, find part-time jobs just to pay our rent. We never spend time with our family. It's very hard," he said.

American Airlines has said it has no say over negotiations between the workers and the catering companies, LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet.

According to CNBC, Gate Gourmet spokeswoman Nancy Jewell said the company has “made significant improvements for our people in wages and benefits across the U.S. and our negotiations with the union to date include additional investments in our people." They will resume negotiations in December.

LSG Sky Chefs said they have been negotiating along with federal mediator since May. Although the workers at 33 airports voted earlier this year to strike, airline workers are regulated by the Railway Labor Act, which requires permission for a strike.

About 300 workers rotated through the protest at SFO on Tuesday, but delays at the airport were attributed more to the heavy rains that started Tuesday evening. According to Unite Here, 50 of the workers were arrested at SFO. At the Philadelphia airport, 39 workers were cited by police for failure to disperse.

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