Travelers who have purchased a bottle of champagne on a flight leaving Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport within the last four years most likely had their bottle handled by George Means, a 58 year-old lifelong Chicagoan who earns $10.30 per hour.
Means, a liquor handler for a company that touts itself as the world’s largest independent airline and railroad caterer, Switzerland-based Gate Gourmet, said he stocks more than 500 liquor bottles every day.
A former construction worker who was laid off during the economic recession, he is one of 900 O’Hare Gate Gourmet workers represented by UNITE HERE Local 1.
“You put in a good day’s work, you should get what you’re worth out of it,” said Means, who added that he made more than double his full-time liquor handler wages as a construction worker. “We are overworked and underpaid.”
A tentative deal between the union and Gate Gourmet may alleviate some of Means', and his coworkers’, financial woes. UNITE HERE has been in negotiations with the company since May 2012 and was able to reach a possible agreement with the company last week.
The major sticking point during negotiations was a wage increase, according to the union. Workers are scheduled to vote on the tentative contract before the end of this week.
But Means, who provides for his out-of-work wife, expressed apprehension over whether the tentative contract would provide a large enough wage increase. He and nearly 100 UNITE HERE members and supporters rallied last week at O’Hare to demand higher wages and better working conditions from the airline caterer.
“It’s been tough, and I don’t know if they’re willing to give us what we need,” he said. “I live paycheck to paycheck, and every month is a struggle.”
According to the union, Gate Gourmet workers saw a wage cut in 2005 and have not had a raise since 2011.
While the average Gate Gourmet chef made $10 per hour in 2002, they now earn $9.50 per hour, the union reports. Also, according to UNITE HERE, the average Gate Gourmet dishwasher earned $8.45 per hour in 2002, but now only makes an hourly wage of $8.50.
“Workers are just looking for the wage increase they feel they deserve,” said Carly Karmel, spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 1. “They made sacrifices in 2005, when the economic recession hit the travel and airline industry so hard, but since the industry has recovered, the workers at Gate Gourmet are still making sacrifices.”
Bankruptcy filings rippled through the U.S. airline industry beginning in the early 2000s following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. As gas prices skyrocketed and demand for air travel rapidly decreased, 51 U.S. passenger and cargo airlines have filed for bankruptcy since 2000.
American Airlines, which filed for bankruptcy in 2011, reported losses of more than $11 billion between 2001 and 2012.
Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and U.S. Airways, some of the country’s top carriers, reported collective losses of $62.8 billion between 2000 and 2009, according to the Department of Transportation.
Karmel said the devastating blow to airlines during the economic recession trickled down to affect employment and wages throughout all sectors of the travel industry, including catering companies such as Gate Gourmet.
But, as airlines have increased passenger fares and fees, much of the industry as a whole is on the rebound.
"The workers made sacrifices, and they feel now is the time to speak out for a wage increase," said Karmel.
“A problem here is that employers in the airline industry, now that they’ve become healthy, are not sharing profits,” said Michael LeRoy, professor of employment relations at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.
“This is another sign of the erosion of the middle class,” said LeRoy. “Every year, we see a greater concentration of workers making minimum wage, or slightly above, with little to no benefits or job security.”
LeRoy said if pilots, who have a higher skill set, can’t win their share of airlines’ profits, it stands to reason food distribution workers tied to the industry won’t do any better.
Pilots, copilots, and flight engineers had a median wage of $141,090 in 2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of May 2012, that median wage was $114,200, a decrease of more than 20 percent.
Gategroup, Gate Gourmet’s parent company, saw revenues increase 11 percent in the first nine months of 2012. Revenue generated from operations during that time period reached more than $70 million for the company, up from roughly $45 million during the same time period in 2011.
“We’ve got people making more money further up, but a widening wage gap,” said LeRoy. “It’s an expanding donut hole of wages in terms of income distribution.”
Gate Gourmet said UNITE HERE workers at O'Hare will be provided with higher wages pending ratification of the tentative contract.
"Gate Gourmet's wages are competitive, and the tentative agreement recently reached with the IBT/HERE employee representatives’ council would, upon ratification, provide union-represented employees with an improved compensation package," reads a statement from the company issued to Progress Illinois. "The proposed agreement recognizes our employees’ years of service and dedication while also keeping the company competitive in an industry that continues to work through financial challenges."
Meanwhile, Means said the potential wage increase under the union’s tentative agreement with the airline caterer is “really important for workers, like me, who are just trying to make ends meet.”
“$10.30 really isn’t enough,” he said. “The airline is making all this money, but we’re doing all the work and we have nothing to show for it.”
Photos courtesy of Noah Dobin-Bernstein, organizer with Unite Here Local 1