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SFO Restaurant Workers Win $5 Raise, Free Family Health Care Following Strike

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three Asian-American women on strike hold signs outside the San Francisco AIrport
Restaurant workers on the picket line outside San Francisco International Airport on Sept. 27, 2022. UNITE HERE Local 2 signed a new contract Sunday guaranteeing workers a $5 per hour raise and free family health care. (Courtesy UNITE HERE)

Update, 10 a.m. Monday: Restaurant workers at San Francisco International Airport approved a new union contract on Sunday, giving them a $5 per hour raise and free family health care, after 1,000 workers went out on strike for three days last week.

A tentative agreement between the union and the airport's consortium of restaurants was announced Thursday, after the union's bargaining committee unanimously approved it.

The union said Sunday the deal passed the hospitality workers' union, UNITE HERE Local 2, by a vote of 99.5%. Workers will immediately get a $3 per hour raise, with the entire $5 raise coming by September 2024. Most workers' hourly wage will increase almost 30%, from $17.05 to $22.05.

Workers will also receive free platinum-tier family health insurance — including medical, dental and vision — with no premiums and co-pays of less than $30 for most doctor's visits and prescriptions.

The union also secured increased retirement income through a defined-benefit pension, a retention policy to protect workers' jobs when outlets change operators, and a one-time $1,500 bonus.

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"This victory is more than I ever dreamed of," said April Asfour, a cook at Boudin Bakery Café at SFO, in a statement released by UNITE HERE Local 2. "I have six kids, and this raise will help me to support them. And with the health care that we won, I can cover all of them for free. I’m so proud that we stood up for ourselves, because everything we won will help me give my family a better life."

a group of seven people in an office look over a contract
SFO restaurant workers vote on the new contract guaranteeing a $5 an hour raise, among other benefits. (Courtesy UNITE HERE)

The win "shows the world that fast-food jobs can in fact be good, family-sustaining jobs, and it's all because workers had the courage to strike," said Anand Singh, president of UNITE HERE Local 2. "After three years without a raise, SFO's fast-food workers were tired of working two or even three jobs just to survive — so they took their lives into their own hands and won a better future."

According to union officials, the strike included employees at 84 food and beverage outlets throughout SFO. The contract will expire in August 2025.

Original post, Sept. 30: The roughly 1,000 food service workers at San Francisco International Airport who went on strike this week for higher pay and benefits will be voting on a contract Sunday that union leaders say “hits all the marks” for a living wage.

The deal, reached Wednesday night, just three days into the strike, showed the power of an organized workforce — a rarity in the U.S. food service industry — but it also showed the effect of some key pressure brought to bear by San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, those close to the negotiations say.

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When the airport cooks, dishwashers, servers, bartenders and baristas of UNITE HERE Local 2 walked off the job Monday morning, contract negotiations had been underway for nine months but union officials said the two sides remained far apart.

“We felt that there was no movement,” said Gabriela Mitose, 56, an airport bartender for almost 30 years who was a member of the negotiating team. “Our voices weren’t being heard. So we had to be loud.”

The impact of the walkout inside SFO was swift, with most restaurants, coffee shops, bars and airport lounges closing entirely or operating only limited hours.

“The airport restaurants can't function without the workers,” said Anand Singh, president of Local 2. “Striking is not an easy thing. But I think we were exacting a real toll on the employers that wasn't sustainable for them.”

At every terminal, workers marched at the curb, chanting and waving union signs reading “One Job Should Be Enough.”

Mitose, who makes $15.10 per hour plus tips at the Lark Creek Grill, said that one job had not been enough for her to cover her mortgage payments. She worked a second job for many years, but it took a heavy toll.

“When you work two jobs for over 15 years, your health takes a really big hit,” she said.

'Shocked and appalled'

The strike made headlines, and some members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors joined the picket lines this week. On Tuesday night, the supervisors called a hearing on the strike.

Union officials testified at the hearing that airport food service workers haven’t had a raise since 2018, and more than one-third of them hold down two or more jobs. Workers described sleeping in their cars between shifts and bathing in public restrooms, because their long commutes home would rob them of precious hours to sleep.

“When we listed our concerns to the Board of Supervisors, they looked pretty shocked and appalled,” said Mitose, who spoke at the meeting.

Board members responded with outrage and noted that the city is the landlord for the restaurants who have leases to do business at the airport.

“It’s an embarrassment that the airport of the city and county of San Francisco treats workers like dirt,” declared Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who chairs the budget committee. “I’m going to start scrutinizing these leases like you’ve never seen before, and nothing’s getting past that committee until these workers are treated fairly.”

She and others urged SFO Director Ivar Satero to take a stronger role in negotiations. And, after Local 2 officials described how a handful of new businesses were ignoring the SFO requirement to allow workers to vote on union membership, supervisors pressed Satero to take action.

“We’ve always enjoyed such strong relationships with the unions … I feel like we really got caught off guard by this whole issue,” admitted Satero, who vowed to be more vigilant.

The board also pressured the group of 30 restaurant employers — who bargain jointly with Local 2 — to meet the needs of workers.

people striking with signs outside an airport
Striking food service workers with UNITE HERE Local 2 picket outside San Francisco International Airport on Mon., Sept. 26, 2022. They ended the strike Wednesday night after reaching a tentative deal with employers. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Restaurateur Kevin Westlye, who spoke on behalf of the employer group, said the owners are pinched by inflation. And he made a pitch for the airport to let the group raise menu prices higher than the current allowance to charge 12% above prevailing “street pricing” at city restaurants.

“We have no issue with giving the employees more money, we have no issue with the union and we have no issue with the airport,” said Westlye. But, he added, “You’ve got us right now in an untenable vise grip.”

Supervisors encouraged the airport to meet the owners halfway on their inflation concerns.

“I see absolutely no reason you guys can’t all just get in the room. The airport’s got something to give, your employer group’s got something to give ... Local 2 already gave a lot,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “So why don’t you guys go sit down and work it out and we just want to see this strike finished.”

A little more than 24 hours later, a tentative deal was announced.

Mitose, the bartender and Local 2 member, said she heard about it from a co-worker. She had been at the negotiations earlier Wednesday night but had to leave before they concluded.

“We got the phone call at midnight,” she said. “We were so excited. It's just such a relief to know that you can go back to work and things will get better.”

'This is the workers' victory'

Neither SFO nor the restaurant group would comment on what happened after Tuesday’s hearing. But Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said the airport did agree to let menu prices go up, potentially breaking the logjam.

“I don't know the details, but I do know that the airport is allowing the restaurants to collect some additional compensation for the workers on the checks that people are going to be paying,” he said. “So prices will go up at the airport.”

Mandelman added, “This is a busy airport, the gateway to San Francisco. And the city general fund benefits from payments from the airport. So we need to not have labor unrest at this airport.”

a woman with a shirt that says 'one job should be enough'
Striking food service workers with UNITE HERE Local 2 picket outside San Francisco International Airport on Mon., Sept. 26, 2022. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Singh, the union president, would not reveal the details of the three-year contract before workers vote to ratify it on Sunday. But he said it includes “significant” raises and fully paid family health insurance.

“We’re very excited by this deal,” he said. “It hits all the marks.”

And he credited the supervisors — who, he pointed out, rarely speak in unison on anything.

“There's no question that the Board of Supervisors had a real impact here. ... They were really shoulder to shoulder and unanimous in their support of the workers,” Singh said. But, he added, “At the end of the day, this is the workers' victory.”

Mitose was back at her job Thursday at the Lark Creek Grill in Terminal 2.

“We’re open for business, and everybody's coming in with happy faces,” she said. “When you don’t have that extra stress about your paycheck, you come in with a better attitude. So you’re going to get way better service.”

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The update to this story includes reporting from Bay City News.

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