US Aviation Catering Protests Lead To Disorder And Arrests

Hundreds of catering workers at airports across the United States have been arrested during protests aimed at bringing higher wages and enhanced benefits. UNITE HERE! stands by its pledge to turn the screw on airlines and government.

JFK Main Terminal interior
Catering workers’ strike causes havoc at one of the busiest times of the year in the US. Photo: Doug Letterman via Flickr

Workers were charged with civil disobedience offenses during the latest day of protest on Tuesday (26/11/19). The NY Post reports on the arrest of hundreds of airline caterers.

The protests were called for by the UNITE HERE! union which represents thousands of men and women who provide in-flight food and drinks services for all major US airlines, including American Airlines.

In its press release, the union said its members were demonstrating over “wages and health benefits, specifically those provided, or not provided, to employees working for subcontractors serving American Airlines.”

However, the nationwide sit-ins have caused travel chaos for all airlines (not just American). On the run-up to Thanksgiving, air travel had already endured widespread disruption due to Arctic lows engulfing large swathes of the country.

American Airlines were keen to clarify with us that, “Unite Here members don’t work for American Airlines, they work for the catering companies. Their union is negotiating with those catering companies, not with American.”

UNITE HERE! sent us a statement that read, “Workers did hold a national day of protest at airports in 17 cities with thousands of individuals protesting, and demonstrators were arrested for participating in civil disobedience actions in seven cities.

Reason for strike

According to UNITE HERE!, about a quarter of their members – those who work for LSG SkyChefs and Gate Gourmet – are paid less than $12 per hour. A third of workers are uninsured and more than a third rely on subsidized healthcare. That situation is untenable, says UNITE HERE!, which cites American Airlines’ 2018 profit at $1.9 billion.

The union is thus demanding higher wages and better working conditions for its members.

American Airlines jet on taxiway
UNITE HERE! supports workers’ grievances about unfairness, especially in relation to American. Photo: Ian Gratton via Flickr

We’re out here protesting across the country because we’re sick and tired of being the lowest-paid and worst-treated workers in the airline industry,” said Nadia Small in the press release.

Ms. Small has worked in the airline catering industry for the past six years and is based at JFK.

If this Thanksgiving is hard for travelers, think about our hardship,” said Small. “It’s life and death.

“Many of us don’t have any health insurance, or we take an expensive, low-quality plan that leaves us struggling with medical debt.

We can’t pay our bills,” she added. “One job should be enough for me and my co-workers, just like it’s enough for most other workers in this billion-dollar airline industry.

Airports affected

Demonstrations took place in 16 cities, according to NYP. Most of the arrests were seen at major hubs such as those in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco. There were also large-scale demonstrations in the US capital.

According to Live and Let’s Fly, the following airports were affected by the protests:

Chicago (ORD)
Houston (IAH)
Los Angeles
New York (JFK)
San Diego
San Francisco
Washington (DCA)

As of Tuesday night,” writes NYP, “hundreds of the estimated thousands of protesters” had been arrested. At JFK 60 workers were taken into custody, at SFO 50 were arrested, at PHL 39 were brought in, and at LAX more than a dozen catering workers were locked up.

Line up of jets at Denver airport
Airports across the US brought to a standstill. Photo: Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia


As American and other airlines counted the effects of the day’s disruption in terms of customer relations and profit, Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs met with UNITE HERE! to try to find common ground in the dispute.

American Airlines released a statement, saying it was “confident” that its catering contractors would soon reach an agreement with UNITE HERE!’s members.

Writes NYP, the carrier said of the action, “We understand that new labor contracts between Unite Here and LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet will result in increased costs for their many airline customers, including American.

We are not in a position to control the outcome of their negotiations or dictate what wages or benefits are agreed upon between the catering companies and their employees.”

Negotiations continue.