In January, United Airlines catering workers in Denver celebrated the one-year anniversary of their successful 2018 labor campaign, where enough workers signed union authorization cards to win the right to hold elections for union representation. After a long struggle, more than 500 catering workers in Denver, alongside 2,200 other workers at sister facilities in Denver, Houston, Cleveland, Honolulu and Newark voted to unionize, becoming part of the UNITE HERE union. UNITE HERE officials called it the biggest labor victory in Denver in over a decade.
Now, Denver’s catering workers are looking to secure safer working conditions and higher wages at Denver International Airport. United Airlines continues to postpone negotiations on a union contract. Working conditions have not yet improved and pay has not increased. The fight is far from over!
Liberation News interviewed a United Airlines catering worker about the conditions at DIA, the union drive, and the continuing fight for workers rights and improved conditions.
Liberation News: What is your name and position at DIA?
Jon Arndt: My name is Jon Arndt. I work for United in the warehouse, in the catering operation. I am just one of the 520 workers in the Denver kitchen who organized a union for our workplace.
LN: What is it like day-to-day in the catering operation?
JA: In the warehouse, we take all the food from trucks from Cisco or Shamrock, one of those big distributors, and store it in the dry area, the freezer, or the coolers. Food goes to the production crew. If it’s for equipment for the plane, like utensils, that goes to sanitation and then you have ice and water that goes out to the outbound docks. So we do pretty much everything, from getting it from other places to getting it ready to be prepped and put onto the plane.
That requires a lot of really hot conditions or freezing conditions, without really any rest from it, especially in the sanitation area where you run giant cleaning machines for hours at a time and it gets over 100 degrees. They don’t take into consideration if you are physically unable to do it, like if you’re pregnant, for example. There have been people who have actually fainted at the machines. And people work in the freezers for three to four hours at a time, where it is -4 degrees.
One of management’s tactics is consistent firings, so we are very much understaffed. There is a lot of mandatory overtime because of this. They keep people in this limbo-zone with the fear of being fired. On top of that, many people have not been certified for the machinery in the warehouse since 2015. Many people are being paid minimum wage, and the highest salary cap is only slightly above $15 an hour.
LN: When did the union drive start?
JA: The union drive started last January. It didn’t go on for very long because the card drive got 80% of people to sign up very quickly. The company was shaken by how quickly we got people to sign up, and it was mostly because of working conditions. We gave the company the numbers and they went to the government and said that workers didn’t know what they were signing, or even that the union had told workers that they were company representatives and if people didn’t sign up for the union they would be fired, which is ridiculous. The government had to come in, and they delayed the union vote for a study. They interviewed workers to see if the union had used false practices, and we all told them, “no, we weren’t bribed, we weren’t lied to.” This took nine months, and then finally after all that we had our union elections, which went on from mid-September to October. We won that vote with 72% of the workforce voting for a union.
LN: Have your co-workers’ opinions about unionizing changed over the last year?
JA: Some of the workers here have been here for over 20 years and haven’t seen anything change in that time. They know that this company is just going to continue business as usual as long as they can. We know that we need a way of actually having our voices heard, because we can’t use the company’s systems to get things changed, and we can’t fight on our own to get change. During the union drive, we definitely saw workers with this point of view already, and others have come around to this point of view.
This campaign has largely just been workers talking to other workers and agitating. We just talked to each other and asked each other, “how can we make this situation better for us?” That is a day-to-day kind of thing. We have shared stories, and we recognize that this is what we need, this union is the only way we can change conditions, even though conditions haven’t changed yet.
LN: What was management’s response to the union vote?
JA: Management is trying to ignore us. They don’t care about the workers at all. The only thing they could tell us about why they couldn’t change things was because our wage demands were above our “market pay rate.” Even though they made $2 billion dollars last year! They offered to get us jobs elsewhere rather than raise our wages. They offered to give us jobs on the ramp, or in customer service. They even offered to get us jobs with their competitors because they had just given their workers a $2 raise. It was really amazing!
A lot of people want this job because they are from the Pacific Islands, and they need the flight benefits that the job offers to get home. The company holds this over them. Also, because some of the workers have been there for 20 years, they don’t want to go anywhere else. And why should we go somewhere else? Why should we have to go to another department to get a better job? Why can’t they just make this job better?
LN: What is ahead for the workers and the union?
JA: We are continuing to fight for the things that we need. We want United Airlines to sit down with us so we can tell them what will happen if they don’t work with us. We can’t keep working under these conditions. Those planes can’t leave the ground without us. The planes can’t leave if the pilots, crews, and passengers don’t have food and water.