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Airline food workers challenge industry for better catering wages
Charlotte protest part of national initiative
Published Tuesday, June 13, 2017 7:00 pm
by Herbert L. White

Airline food workers demonstrate Sunday at Charlotte Douglas International airport for better wages. The protest is part of an initiative by the labor union Unite Here to recover cost of living increases that were part of concessions to airlines after the 9/11 attacks.

















 Bobby Kirkpatrick is fed up with airline catering wages.

Kirkpatick, 55, who has prepared meals in the food kitchen at Charlotte Douglas International Airport for 37 years, earns $34,000 annually, $2,000 less than he did in 2001. Kirkpatrick, a shop steward with the labor union Unite Here, is employed by LSG Sky Chefs, a division of German air carrier Lufthansa, which serves 30 airports.

“I’ve been working in this industry for nearly 40 years, but my pay rate hasn’t kept pace with costs of living,” he said. “We work directly with airline employees like pilots and ground crew, but while those workers have received deserved raises and bonuses related to soaring airline profits, we haven’t seen any of it.”

Kirkpatrick, who leads 200 of Unite Here’s 1,000 members at Charlotte-Douglas, has participated in rallies at American Airlines’ East Coast hubs through the week, starting Sunday in Charlotte, American’s second largest. Protests were held at American’s Philadelphia and Washington Reagan National hubs before Wednesday’s protest at the company’s annual shareholders meeting in New York. Unite Here, which represents 15,000 airport catering workers, staged a demonstration last month at United Airlines’ annual meeting in Chicago.

“This tour is important because it’s time everyone realized that we airline food workers are an important part of the airline industry, too,” Kirkpatrick said.

Catering workers contend the airline industry took advantage of them after 9/11, winning concessions to help carriers stay afloat.

“I make barely $9 [an hour]—almost $4 less than the wage established by the Miami-Dade County living wage ordinance,” said Yamilet Vigueras, an airline food worker at Miami International Airport. “I work hard to make food that I hope passengers will enjoy when they fly, and I think that both passengers and airline food workers like me deserve better from the airlines. To say I’m fed up is an understatement.”

U.S. airline profits grew by $35 billion in 2016, according to Unite Here, which represents catering workers at 51 airports. At Charlotte-Douglas, catering personnel make as little as $8.20 an hour. After 20 years, wages top out at $15.70 hourly.

Although airlines don’t employ catering workers, they have boosted pay in markets where municipal authorities require it as minimum wage increases. American has paid  $22.1 million since 2014 for caterers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, airline spokesman Matt Miller told Forbes magazine last week.

"While we don’t have a role in setting the pay rates of catering employees, we have encouraged our catering partners to provide [contract] proposals when labor markets change,” he said.

Delta has absorbed additional costs as minimum pay rates at vendors have increased “in several higher-cost-of-living locations,” spokesman Morgan Durrant told Forbes.

Unite Here’s contract with LSG Sky Chefs, which runs through 2018, provided a pay increase of $1.25 over three years, Unite Here spokesman Adam Yalowitz said.


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