Sixty people were arrested after hundreds of food service workers and their supporters gathered outside the departure hall of the American Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy airport yesterday to demand that the airline support better pay and benefits for the people who get food onto airplanes.
Nadia Small-Lewis, a 41-year-old Flatbush resident who has delivered catering carts to planes for the airline food company Sky Chefs for six and a half years, said she has had to work a second job just to make rent and cover her health insurance premiums. “It’s hard to get by in the state of New York,” she said. “Everything is going up but our salary.”
The demonstration was organized by the North American labor union UNITE HERE, as part of a series of actions at airports around the country on one of the busiest travel days of the year. The union’s members are currently in contract negotiations with two of American Airlines’ food-service contractors, LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, but say the real power rests with the airline.
“We know who employs Sky Chefs is American Airlines,” said Jose Maldonado, Secretary-Treasurer for UNITE HERE’s Local 100. “They don’t have the legal responsibility, but they have he moral responsibility, and they can actually make the change because they’re the boss. They’re holding the money.”
In New York, LSG Sky Chefs employs about 1,200 UNITE HERE members at JFK, and Gate Gourmet nearly 300 more, according to the union. Seventy percent of his members in food service at JFK are making minimum wage, Maldonado said. In New York, that’s $15 by law. At airports elsewhere in the country, he said, the companies’ employees are making as little as $8 an hour with no health insurance.
The workers have voted to authorize a strike, but they aren’t legally allowed to undertake one unless the federally mediated negotiations fall through. They’re hoping it doesn’t come to that.
Workers yesterday wore t-shirts emblazoned with the words “One Job Should Be Enough.” Juan Blanco, a 60 year-old Queens man who has been working for Sky Chefs for 15 years, said the message of the workers is simple: “We’re here telling people that we need health insurance, a retirement plan, and a dignified salary,” Blanco said in Spanish. A cancer survivor, Blanco has health insurance, but it costs him $6,000 a year and has such a high deductible that on his salary of $18.50 an hour, he said, “I can barely use it.”
The workers were supported by appearances by a number of elected officials, many of whom remarked that New York is a union town: City Council Members Costa Constantinides and Donovan Richards, State Senator Julia Salazar, Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Are you ready to take on this big, greedy company and get your fair share?” de Blasio asked the crowd. “These companies make a lot of money off of your back, but they don’t give back to you. American Airlines made $1.9 billion in profit last year, but they say they can’t give you the health care you deserve. That’s ridiculous. The only reason they make that money is because of your hard work.”
American Airlines has said publicly that it recognizes a new contract for food-service workers will inevitably result in increased costs for itself. Gate Gourmet spokesperson Nancy Jewell told Forbes, “We are disappointed by the union’s unreasonable and unaffordable demands for wage increases and medical benefits which hinder the long-term sustainability of our industry, create unrealistic expectations and delay progress.”
Following the speeches of politicians and union leaders, the media-spectacle part of the demonstration began. In a highly choreographed protest, sixty people staged a die-in in the departure hall of Terminal 8, arranging themselves on the floor as press and Port Authority Police looked on. Police used a Long Range Acoustic Device to warn the recumbent protesters that if they persisted they risked arrest. After an interval of a few minutes, as previously negotiated between police and the union, an officer gave a nod to organizers, who, making the all-rise gesture, ushered everyone out of the building.
The arrests came a quarter of an hour later, when another 60 people filed into the roadway leading to the departure hall, then patiently idled while the Port Authority’s Counter-Terrorism police, who had been waiting all afternoon for their moment with braces of zip-cuffs dangling from their belts, arrested them and led them off. As disorderly conduct arrests go, the whole sequence was exceedingly orderly.
The goal of the afternoon was not to disrupt air travel, though, but to educate consumers, said Gwen Mills, Secretary-Treasurer of UNITE HERE International. “We are talking to the passengers,” she said. “We need the passengers that American Airlines makes billions of dollars off of to understand our fight. They are in this with us.”