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.
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.