Airline food service workers took their new "nickel a ticket" campaign for affordable health care to the downtown Chicago headquarters of United Airlines Thursday morning.
Gate Gourmet airline catering employees at O'Hare International Airport, represented by UNITE HERE Local 1, delivered a letter to the airline's offices at Willis Tower, calling on United to set aside one nickel per passenger ticket to help "fix the problem of unaffordable health care" for the workers.
The letter was delivered on behalf of more than 10,000 airline food service workers from various catering companies at 42 U.S. airports, according to organizers. In addition to the letter, Chicago Gate Gourmet employees dropped off a box to United's offices containing photos of 1,000 of the catering workers who have signed a petition asking the airline to earmark a nickel per passenger ticket for health care costs.
UNITE HERE's national "nickel a ticket" worker campaign, launched on Thursday, is targeting United, as well as American and Delta airlines.
"We're in Chicago with our group, and we have workers that are rallying also in Atlanta, which is the home of Delta Airlines. We have workers in Dallas, home of American, and 17 additional cities across the U.S. starting the campaign today," said Meghan Cohorst, spokeswoman for UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents 900 Gate Gourmet workers at O'Hare.
One of those O'Hare workers, Tangela Lumzy, earns $10.73 an hour as a "flight checker" for Gate Gourmet. Before flights go out, Lumzy checks the planes to ensure they have the necessary food, beverages and other items.
"I don't have health insurance through Gate Gourmet, because I can't afford it," said Lumzy, who depends on Medicaid for her family's health care needs. "I work over 40 hours every week, and I still can't afford to pay for health care" offered by Gate Gourmet. Lumzy said she holds one of the higher-paying jobs at Gate Gourmet.
Last year, UNITE HERE analyzed the wages of nearly 10,000 contracted airline catering workers in the country, finding that 40 percent of them earned less than $10.10 per hour.
"They are working full-time. They're working all the overtime that they can, but they are struggling to make ends meet," Cohorst said. "At the same time, the health care benefits that they're being offered by their [catering] company just for catastrophic, individual coverage ... (start) at $1,400 annually all the way up to $5,000 to insure a family. For workers who are barely making $25,000 a year, the health care is just unaffordable."
O'Hare catering worker Helen Harris, who works in Gate Gourmet's "dish room" and is uninsured, said she can barely afford groceries earning $8.71 an hour, let alone a health care plan that could cost her up to $5,000 a year.
"When I pay my rent, I have almost nothing left over," she explained.
When asked why workers are calling on the airlines, rather than the catering vendors, to address the issue, Harris said, the airlines control "everything in the airport. They can control this also. They can control whether or not we have affordable health care."
Here's more from Lumzy, Harris as well as scenes from the petition and letter delivery:
United directed Progress Illinois' request for comment to Gate Gourmet, noting in an email that UNITE HERE "does not represent a single United Airlines employee, and any questions concerning our vendors and their employees should be directed to the vendors."
In an email to Progress Illinois, Gate Gourmet spokeswoman Katie Bengaard said, "It's usual to see some union activity during negotiations."
"For our part, Gate Gourmet is focused on providing competitive pay and benefits that balance the interests of all our stakeholders, including our employees and customers," she added. "We do offer several medical care options and provide a number of company-paid benefits as part of our employees' total compensation package."
Contract negotiations between UNITE HERE airline catering workers and Gate Gourmet are currently underway in Chicago and across the country.
In response to Gate Gourmet's statement, Cohorst cirlced back to her earlier comments, noting that the cheapest health care plans offered by the company are "super expensive," costing Chicago workers $1,400 to $5,000 annually.
Airline catering workers and union officials argue that major U.S. airlines can definitely afford a nickel per ticket to help the workers who prepare and deliver the food and beverages their passangers enjoy.
"The airlines actually are now, just in the last weeks, reporting record profits," Cohorst noted. "United itself is posting an excess of a billion dollars in annual profits for 2014. This is a trend that we're seeing all throughout the airline industry, is that after several kind of tumultuous years when the industry was struggling, they're really doing well. They're receiving tax breaks [and] subsides as an industry, while at the same time, they're paying catering companies the same amount of money for food that they have for 10 years."