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'I Can't Buy Food': Flight Catering Workers Picket For Higher Wages At Miami International Airport

LSG Sky Chefs workers picketed for higher wages and safer working conditions on Wednesday at Miami International Airport.
Sam Turken
LSG Sky Chefs workers picketed for higher wages and safer working conditions on Wednesday at Miami International Airport.

More than 50 union workers who prepare food for flights at Miami International Airport protested on Wednesday for higher wages and better working conditions.

Chanting and waving signs that read “One Job Should Be Enough,” the workers called on their employer, LSG Sky Chefs, to raise their wages from an average of $12.95 per hour to at least $15 per hour. The employees included cooks and porters who prepare food and supplies at nearby kitchens and drivers who load the food on to American Airlines, Delta and United flights.

“Pay us more money so we can survive,” said Philip Francois, 31, who makes $10.20 an hour working in one of Sky Chefs’ kitchens. "I don’t have no money to eat. I have to get toothpaste at my mom’s house just so I can brush my teeth and everything.”

The protests followed the workers’ vote in June to go on strike until Sky Chefs meets their demands. Nearly 11,000 company employees at airports across the country have also voted for a strike. Unite Here Local 355, the union representing the Miami workers, says it's planning three protests a week at the airport until the strike begins.

The workers are still waiting for the National Mediation Board to approve the strike. The employees fall under the Railway Labor Act, which seeks to ensure that the rail line and aviation industries run smoothly. Any strike without the board’s permission is therefore illegal. The union must convince the board that all other negotiating tactics are exhausted and a strike is necessary.

In addition to wage increases, the workers seek better healthcare coverage and the establishment of a pension. Wendy Walsh, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 355, said 94 percent of the workers make less than $15 per hour and only 19 percent can afford the health insurance plan offered by LSG Sky Chefs.

“It’s time to bring these workers into the modern age,” she said. “When workers have waited more than 20 years to make a livable wage, it’s time for them to be able to exercise their right to withdraw their labor and be allowed to strike."

In a statement, a spokesman for LSG Sky Chefs said it’s been negotiating in good faith with workers since October 2018.

“The stumbling block to success is the union’s demands for added wages and benefits that more than double our total cost of labor. While we have proposed increases in wages as well as other benefits, our company could not possibly meet the union’s demands and remain in business,” the spokesman added.

Union officials say airlines could help LSG Sky Chefs afford the higher wages. Walsh and Rose Metellus Denis, president of Unite Here Local 355, noted that the airlines receive billions in profits each year. They can start paying LSG Sky Chefs more, Walsh said.

“It’s really the airlines that are holding these workers back,” she added.

In a statement, American Airlines responded that it is not involved in the negotiations between LSG Sky Chefs and the workers and that it "will continue to monitor the situation." The airline added that it does not anticipate an impact on its catering operations. 

During the protests on Wednesday, workers reflected on what a higher wage could mean.

Hector Nieto, 27, said he makes $11.60 an hour helping to transport food and supplies at one of LSG Sky Chefs’ kitchens. He said he wants to have a child with his wife but doesn’t know how he can afford to take care of it.

“I can’t pay my rent. I can’t buy food,” Nieto said. “I can't have a child if I can't buy my food." 

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After living in North Carolina the past four years, Miami native Sam Turken is back in the city he’s always called home.
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