In concert with thousands of picketing airline kitchen workers around the country, more than 100 airline catering workers organized a funeral procession — complete with coffins and a brass band playing mournful marches — to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Tuesday night, where they called for higher wages.
“This is a life or death issue,” said Stefan Moritz, the secretary of the workers’ union, Unite Here Local 8. “Workers are struggling to make the most basic ends meet. Workers are tired and stressed. Workers are constantly working overtime.”
The protesting workers prepare in-flight meals and transport them to Sea-Tac. While they’re employed by catering companies LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, the targets of their protest were Sea-Tac’s two largest carriers, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
Airlines, the union said, wield the economic power to set prices and wages among their contractors, including catering companies. Previously, LSG Sky Chefs has said it could not meet the union’s demands for higher wages without going out of business.
The picketers want airlines to demand kitchen workers’ pay be raised to a level at least commensurate with the roughly $16 per hour minimum other airport employees earn.
The city of SeaTac passed an inflation-adjusted $15 per hour minimum wage in 2013, but catering workers preparing in-flight food were specifically exempted from that wage floor. Today, more than half of airline kitchen workers make less than the city’s minimum, according to the union.
Negotiations have been ongoing for the past several months between the union and LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet. Companies said they were committed to negotiating in good faith.
“We feel progress is being made with the help of the federal mediator,” LSG Sky Chefs said in a statement.
Additional talks are scheduled for December.
The protest outside Sea-Tac was relatively tame — the Port confirmed it did not disrupt airport operations.
But during some of the concurrent protests at 16 other airports around the country, airline kitchen workers took over terminals to stage die-ins and sit-ins. Dozens of protesters were arrested or cited for failing to disperse and obstructing traffic at airports including John F. Kennedy International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport.
A record-breaking number of travelers are expected to pass through airports this year around the Thanksgiving holiday. The timing of the protest, on the eve of what is historically one of the nation’s busiest travel days, implied a threat to airline operations if the kitchen workers were to strike, though the protests are unlikely to result in a work stoppage.
The kitchen workers can only strike if released to do so by the National Mediation Board, which oversees strikes among airport and railway workers — sectors where a strike, even among catering workers, could unspool into travel chaos.
Members of the Sea-Tac airline kitchen workers’ local voted “overwhelmingly” this summer to strike as soon as the National Mediation Board allows them to. That could happen if the board determines that mediation between the union and employers has resulted in an impasse.
In a statement, the Port of Seattle, which oversees the airport, sided with the airline kitchen workers. It called on airlines and flight kitchen companies to “make fixing this wage inequity a top priority.”
“Every worker deserves a living wage and benefits that allow them to support themselves and their families with dignity,” the statement read.
A Delta spokeswoman said the airline partners with multiple vendors and doesn’t expect disruptions to its catering operations. Alaska Airlines said in a statement that it is “fully prepared” to implement a new collective-bargaining agreement once LSG and the union conclude negotiations.
In testimony before the Port Commission in February, longtime LSG Sky Chefs employee Niño Cueto described a vicious cycle of work to afford health care for himself and his wife.
He said he worked overtime to afford a deductible on dental surgery. In doing so, he edged over the maximum income requirement for Medicaid and became ineligible for the program. But he can’t afford the premiums on health care through LSG Sky Chefs. He and his wife are currently uninsured.
“I worry all the time what will happen to my wife if she gets sick and needs to go to the doctor,” he said.
This article has been updated with a statement from LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, and edited for clarity.
Seattle Times staff reporter Asia Fields contributed to this post.