United’s Interesting Labor Dispute With Airport Kitchen Staff

I get a lot of email pitches, and most of them are actively uninteresting to me. “Ben: new data about millennial basketweaving trends in Namibia.” That’ll be a no from me.

But earlier I received an email with the subject line: “Labor dispute amid Polaris Lounge opening in Houston.” That certainly caught my attention. The email was from UNITE HERE, a union that wants to represent United’s roughly 2,700 kitchen staff at five airports, including in Houston. Unlike some other airlines, United runs their own kitchens at some airports, which they inherited from Continental (most other US airlines outsource their catering needs).

If nothing else I have to give them credit for the attention grabbing headline and tying the content of the story into something that’s relevant to the blog — the opening of the United Polaris Lounge. Here’s what they wrote me:

As you know, the newest United Airlines Polaris Lounge is set to open to the public at IAH on June 29th. I wanted you to be aware that United is in the middle of a protracted labor dispute involving workers in its five airline catering kitchens, including one in Houston. These kitchens prepare the Polaris inflight meals.

While the airline spends millions to roll out its premium Polaris service, it has engaged in an aggressive anti-union campaign in response to its catering employees’ petition to hold a union election. The 2,700 catering workers—the employees already responsible for preparing, packing and delivering Polaris customers’ inflight meals—are United’s only frontline employees who are not unionized.

At IAH, many United Airlines catering employees are stuck in poverty. Some earn as low as $9.99 to start and just over $11 per hour after nearly 30 years of service. In fact, United pays Houston food workers less than United or its contractors pay food service workers in any other United hub city in the country.

Without getting too political (okay, maybe I am?), I don’t always think unions are the solution to everything. For example, Delta flight attendants aren’t unionized and arguably are treated better and compensated better than their counterparts at American and United. Conversely, I also don’t think unions always ruin everything and lead to a bad customer experience. For example, Southwest flight attendants are unionized, well paid, and among the best in the industry.

What I take issue with is anyone making $11 per hour after nearly 30 years of service with a company. Of course big companies have an obligation to maximize shareholder value, but in my opinion that needs to be done in an ethical way, and to me there’s nothing ethical about that. You know, it’s part of the whole “you take care of your people and they take care of your customers” philosophy. But I guess the way they get their $20 million in annual compensation is by making sure that other people are living below the poverty line.

Then I started reading more about this issue, and why the kitchen staff apparently haven’t been able to unionize. As reported by the Chicago Tribune in April:

“Unite Here filed its unionization petition in January with support from three-quarters of the United kitchen workforce, which would usually trigger a National Mediation Board-supervised election. United, however, responded by filing a complaint with the NMB alleging fraud and misrepresentation by the union. In a rare move, the board, which is led by a 2-1 Republican majority appointed by President Donald Trump, chose to indefinitely delay the union vote while investigating the airline’s allegations, all of which Unite Here denied.”

Not only does that sound shady, but then apparently earlier this year United installed TVs in the catering facilities. Rather than broadcasting TV shows to entertain their employees during their breaks or while working, they broadcast messages explaining why workers shouldn’t unionize:

Employees at all five of United Continental Holdings Inc.’s kitchens in the U.S. said the screens, installed this year, broadcast a company line urging opposition to hospitality union Unite Here, which is seeking to organize its workers, or touting United’s achievements. Among the messages are warnings about the cost of union dues, the potential for workers to lose benefits if they unionize and the difficulty of getting rid of a union once it’s been voted in. The last point, the workers said, is illustrated with the image of a forearm with a “Together Forever” tattoo.

“It’s driving people crazy,” said Maria Villaroel, a 12-year employee who does safety and security inspections at United’s kitchen at Newark International Airport. She said TVs have been broadcasting anti-union messages in the cafeteria, the loading dock and the food production area. “They’re trying to wash people’s brains.”

United has also alluded to the possibility of outsourcing their catering, though the biggest catering companies are also represented by UNITE HERE, so that won’t exactly be a deterrent for the union to try and get employees onboard. I imagine there’s a reason United continues to handle catering themselves, and not outsource it.

Bottom line

I knew that United was unique in having their own catering facilities, but I wasn’t aware of the labor disputes they were having. It seems rather concerning that 75% of United’s kitchen workforce voted to unionize, but for whatever reason that’s being blocked. This is United’s only frontline workgroup that isn’t unionized.

Like I said, I’m not someone who thinks unions are the solution to everything, as there are a lot of great companies with big workforces that aren’t unionized. Conversely, there are a lot of big companies with strong unions, where employees aren’t paid well and customer service is bad.

What I do take serious issue with is when there’s a clear desire from employees for unionization, employees are making unacceptably low wages, even after years of service, and management is blocking these efforts. That isn’t cool.

I’ll be curious to see how this situation unfolds.

Comments

  1. @Lucky — Did you ask United to comment before you posted the characterizations of one side in a labor dispute? Perhaps there is more to the story than just the union’s take? If you contacted United reps and they declined to comment, why isn’t that referenced in the article?

    If you’re going to post on a political issue, as opposed to a flight review, you should observe some kind of journalistic standards and at least offer a United spokesperson an opportunity to present their side of the story (and make clear if they declined the opportunity to comment). As it is, this gives the appearance that you’re allowing yourself (and your readers) to be manipulated by one side in a dispute.

    Incidentally, the cost of living in Houston is about 45% lower than the cost of living in, say, SFO, another United hub, so after adjusting for the cost of living, earning $11 an hour in Houston is equivalent to about $20 per hour in San Francisco. Also, even the starting wage of $9.99 is well above the poverty level, and earning just over $11 per hour is considered a “living wage” in Houston in a “living wage” calculator put out by MIT. I’m not saying that these people shouldn’t be paid more, but suggesting that United is “clearly paying poverty wages” does not appear to be supported by the facts.

  2. @ John — United has repeatedly provided media quotes on this issue, and they’re about as insightful as you’d expect them to be. They call the allegations baseless, saying they believe in competitive pay, etc. As far as the calculator you reference goes, that assumes they’re single adults working a full 2080 hours per year, and spending no more than $468/per month on housing including all utilities. If they work any less than that, then the starting rate wouldn’t meet the required annual income to constitute a “living wage,” and again, that assumes they’re single and don’t have a family.

    C’mon, that’s not fair/realistic…

  3. @Gary Leff:

    I think perhaps “intimidation” was poor word choice and what Ben’s closing statement(s) refer to are the scare tactics United is purportedly using to attempt to spread anti-union sentiment. And that’s certainly what it appears they’re doing.

  4. @Lucky, why would you point out that UA rampers make more? So do Pilots, and FA’s, and Customer Service agents…its a totally different job. Working in an airline catering facility is essentially the same as working at a fast food restaurant except these employees likely get health and flight benefits. And the only issue I would take with someone making $11/hr after 30 years with a company is that they’ve chosen to continue doing the same job for 30 years. Thats on the employee, not the company. Some jobs are only worth what the market will bear, not how long you’ve been in the role.

  5. RepubliCollusionists are sure triggered by any mention of unionization. You really are a special kind of snowflake if you’re triggered by people who work their ass off asking executives and Wall Street for a couple bucks more an hour which probably amounts to 1% less shareholder profit.

  6. @ Lucky — anti-union videos are not uncommon, unfortunately. Way back in the day, Sam’s Club employees thought of unionizing so the company would show a mind boggling anti-union video to new hires that was so bad, it made North Korean news seem like NPR.

  7. Lucky, in the event that you receive any more hilarious email pitches like the one about basket weaving in Namibia, could you please share them on here? I as well as the other readers (I’m sure) would love to use the humor from these to brighten our days.

  8. So why don’t the employees simply leave and go elsewhere, where they would get paid more? Last I checked no one forced them to work there.

  9. I really hesitate to comment, because I know this is a topic which inflames passions. I am not going to sit here and argue that $10 or $11/hour affords a great standard of living. It doesn’t. However, @John has a very good point: Houston has a low cost of living. Your housing calculations are a bit off — it seems to be ~25% of income, but I’d counter that most affordability programs would consider 50% of after-tax income affordable housing; at these wages, taxes are negative if you have children (EITC). “Living Wage” is a very messy figure, because it is completely subjective. What I define as a necessary expense, someone else may not.

    The poverty level for one adult + one child living in Houston, TX is ~$7/hr at full time (http://livingwage.mit.edu/metros/26420). Minimum wage is $7.25. $11 is objective NOT poverty level, and substantially above minimum wage. I’m not sure if you’ve ever worked in food service before, but it is pretty much a minimum-wage industry, since the education and experience requirements are minimal. Furthermore, United provides health insurance benefits to these workers, which is not common in food service. This likely adds at least $3-$4 to worker compensation.

    I guess my point is that nothing here suggests that these are “unacceptably low wages” for this kind of work in Houston. It sucks that NMB is blocking the election, but UA is highly unionized, so I very much doubt they are doing anything that would rise to the level of worker intimidation. I think if they want to unionize, they should have that right. However, based on wages at comparable union shops like LSG, it’s not readily apparent that they have much to gain.

  10. National living wage in the UK is £7.85 = $10.43 where cost of living is higher than USA. Are they offered options for career enhancement or is this the only wage available? What extra training or skills development has there been over time?

  11. @ Alan

    UK minimum wage (which government sets) is £7.83 or ~$10.40.

    The UK “minimum living wage” (an amount described by various NGOs as the amount necessary for a decent life) is £8.75 an hour (or £10.20 in Greater London).

    Some things are much more expensive in the UK than the US (much housing, for example), while other living expenses (such as healthcare) are vastly cheaper.

    Sources:

    https://www.gov.uk/national-minimum-wage-rates

    https://www.livingwage.org.uk/calculation

  12. Probably just lazy – here’s some help with a new job. 30 years, c’mon.

    136885 Accelerate to Leadership Program 2018 – Custodial Associate Manager Houston TX US Facilities Salary
    180169 Catering Service Worker – UH – Hilton Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    176391 Cook Supervisor – Corrections – Minute Maid Park – Catering Houston TX US Culinary Hourly and Seasonal
    140686 Accelerate to Leadership Program 2018 – Business Dining Houston TX US Food Services Salary
    176395 General Utility Worker – Minute Maid Park – Catering Houston TX US Culinary Hourly and Seasonal
    176387 Cook – Minute Maid Park – Catering Houston TX US Culinary Hourly and Seasonal
    137028 Accelerate to Leadership Program 2018 – Food Service Manager Houston TX US Food Services Salary
    176456 Office Lead Worker – Minute Maid Park – Catering Houston TX US Administrative Services Hourly and Seasonal
    106550 Premium Concessions- Cashier- Minute Maid Park Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    176176 Custodial Services Worker – Houston Baptist University – Housekeeping Custodial Houston TX US Facilities Hourly and Seasonal
    166413 Nutrition Manager – Houston, TX Houston TX US Nutrition and Dietetics Salary
    179203 Sales Associate – AUS- Houston Houston TX US Sales Salary
    180200 Beverage Attendant – NRG Stadium Concessions Houston TX US Customer Service Hourly and Seasonal
    176976 Administrative Assistant – Galena Park ISD – Custodial Houston TX US Administrative Services Hourly and Seasonal
    174492 Cook – UH – Hilton Houston TX US Culinary Hourly and Seasonal
    172100 General Utility Worker – Houston Baptist University Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    172021 Food Service Lead Worker – Houston Baptist University Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    174490 Baker – UH – Hilton Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    172031 Barista – Houston Baptist University – Java City Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    174475 General Utility Worker – UH – Hilton Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    180473 Student – Custodial Services Worker – Houston Baptist University – Housekeeping Custodial Houston TX US Facilities Hourly and Seasonal
    180170 Student – Food Service Worker – UH – Hilton Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    180422 Food Service Lead Worker – KBR Tower Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    175666 Facilities & Conversions Manager – Houston, TX Houston TX US Facilities Salary
    171019 Food Service Manager – Minute Maid Park Houston TX US Food Services Salary
    180186 Dishwasher – NRG Stadium Suites Houston TX US Facilities Hourly and Seasonal
    180201 Alcohol Compliance Supervisor – NRG Stadium Human Res Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    180190 Server – NRG Stadium Club Level Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    180193 Lead Server – NRG Stadium Club Level Houston TX US Food Services Hourly and Seasonal
    180172 Warehouse Worker – NRG Stadium Warehouse Houston TX US Warehouse Hourly and Seasonal

  13. IMO United’s current first class meal offerings (domestic) are better than Delta’s or American’s. United does actually do some things well. Possibly having their own flight kitchens is part of the reason for that. I suspect once the food workers unionize, United will consider closing the flight kitchens and outsource like everyone else. That will be a sad day for those workers.

  14. Blame an employee because his/her company would rather pay its executives so that they can buy a newer Ferrari or another vacation home than someone who is going to bed thinking will I have enough to pay rent, gas, electricity, and food? What will happen if my car breaks down? How will I pay for it or more importantly how will I get to my job without a car?

    You have no right to comment if you have never lived a life like that. If you have and have progressed out of it,, good for you. But just because you did it does not mean others can do. Else every thief will own Microsoft and every d@#$head will own Facebook. People need to get out of the bubble of their their corporate jobs that pays them to travel in business/first class.

  15. You just won me over Lucky. It is rare for anyone to try to weigh both sides of an issue……and even rarer for a travel blogger to cover the economic problems of travel industry employees. I appreciate you.

    It is a nice change because Gary Leff just the other day criticized SeaTac’s airport minimum wage and cited business-produced studies to do so.

    Team Lucky!

  16. Gunnar, different jobs have different pay. Maybe you could donate to an employee welfare fund?

  17. @OleGunnar
    Yes I have, couldn’t pay rent, that’s why I worked two jobs and went to school at night, now I have master’s degree and working nice job and doing some investment, everyone has a choice, if you are waiting for someone to give you a money, that’s not going to happen. After work, instead of watching TV, why not read books, finance, computer, IT, investment, etc and educate yourself? Now you could learn everything from Youtube. People need to stop blaming for others, other than yourself. I see people driving old car about to fall apart, but yet drink Starbucks, going to movies, and going out for dinner, while I make my own coffee and dinner. Why am I suppose to feel sorry for their poor choices? I lived place without power for a week, have you done that? If you live the place without power, you bet you will do whatever you can to improve yourself instead of blaming on others.

  18. @Lucky, good job balancing both sides on this. As someone trying to lead in a unionized environment, I see the negative effects unions can have. But as someone who is extremely liberal in general, I understand the value that unions have brought to this country. Unfortunately, many of the wrong organizations are unionized and those that should be aren’t. If management is abusive, the employees should unionize. If management is NOT abusive, employees are far better off without a union. On another note, it’s a myth that companies have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value. They don’t. They can choose to maximize employee wages and make little profit if they want. If the investors don’t like it they can sell. As a consequence, most public companies do tend to try to maximize shareholder value. But often the executives are more interested in maximizing their own compensation. I could go on but I won’t.

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