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Airline Food Workers Protest Low Wages Amid ‘Historic’ Profits

While airline employees have seen raises, those who cater airline meals have not

Airline catering workers in the Washington, D.C., area rallied for higher wages on Wednesday. (Photo Courtesy Meghan Cohorst, UNITE HERE)
Airline catering workers in the Washington, D.C., area rallied for higher wages on Wednesday. (Photo Courtesy Meghan Cohorst, UNITE HERE)

United isn’t the only airline facing public criticism this week — airline food workers, who prepare meals served on flights, are protesting their low wages while they say the airlines are enjoying record profits.

More than 100 workers for airline catering companies marched from the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Wednesday to protest their wages in the midst of what organizers with the labor union UNITE HERE described as “historic profits” for airlines and “well-deserved gains” for other airport and airline workers.

Last week, catering workers demonstrated in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and the march in Washington on Wednesday was joined by others in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and New York. Further demonstrations are planned in San Francisco on Thursday and Seattle on Friday.

Airline caterers prepare and cook the meals, then pack and deliver the carts that flight attendants wheel down plane aisles. Most work for a few big companies, including Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs, who contract with the airlines.

Arthur Phillips, an organizer with UNITE HERE, said the fact that caterers work behind the scenes, and aren’t directly employed by airlines makes it harder for them to get the same wage increases as other airport workers.

According to Phillips, American Airlines, Delta, and United had all enjoyed profits of around $9 and $10 billion over 2015 and 2016. He said pilots, flight attendants, and ground crews fought for and won pay increases, and all airline employees receive profit-sharing bonuses.

“Meanwhile, 85 percent of workers for the largest airline caterer earn less than $15 per hour and do not see profit-sharing bonuses,” he said.

Roll Call sent requests for comment to the two major airline catering companies, Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs, and the three major airlines — United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines. 

American responded with a statement, saying it “supports better pay for workers across the board, but does not believe initiatives should target a specific group or industry.”

Sky Chefs responded but declined to comment. The other companies had not responded at time of publication. 

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