Op-Ed: United Airlines catering workers deserve a union

Op-Ed: United Airlines catering workers deserve a union

Originally published in the Houston Chronicle on April 9, 2018

I have worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines and before that for Continental for a total of 28 years. Over the years, unionized flight attendants have fought hard for decent salaries, safe working conditions and respect. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of United Airlines employees here in Houston who are still living in poverty without safe jobs or respect at work.

More than 800 United employees work in the airlines’ Houston catering kitchen. Most of them are immigrants and people of color. Their work is just as important to United as mine. It is shameful that the company treats these workers differently than their other work groups and pays them much less. Maria Velasquez, for example, has worked for the company for nearly 30 years, yet she earns just over $11 an hour. Now, United is trying to prevent her from simply having the basic opportunity to cast a vote to have a union that I have.

United is one of the largest employers in Houston and a company that has received hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies from the city of Houston in recent years. For any of their employees to be suffering is simply unacceptable. 

United Airlines catering workers prepare food all day in extremely cold kitchens and deliver it to planes on burning hot tarmacs. Planes cannot take off without their effort. Although the work of these men and women is less visible to the traveling public than that of flight attendants, they deserve good wages, safety and respect — just like pilots, flight attendants and ramp workers.

Over the past several months, it has been a source of deep inspiration to watch my coworkers in the catering kitchen fight for a union and a living wage in the face of great hardship. Ellen Hill’s apartment flooded during Hurricane Harvey, and she lost everything. But she didn’t stop organizing, because after having worked for United Airlines Catering Operations at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston for 13 years, she only makes about $11 per hour. She has to prepare and sell tamales and other goods in her spare time to make ends meet. Ellen knows a union can change her life.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed while in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. Dr. King understood that the African-American sanitation workers’ strike was central to the broader fight for economic rights, human rights and civil rights.

In January, 76 percent of United Airlines’ catering workers nationwide signed cards calling for a union election. Unfortunately, United Airlines has launched a campaign to intimidate and suppress workers’ desire for a union. Here in Houston, managers have threatened and questioned workers in retaliation for engaging in protected union activities. The airline is even trying to prevent employees’ basic right to vote on whether they want a union. They have even had the gall to suggest that the predominantly immigrant workers must not have known what they were signing.

The struggle of hundreds of United Airlines catering workers here in Houston for equality is a continuation of Dr. King’s fight for economic and social justice. Houston must hold United to a higher standard and stand in solidarity with these workers in their quest for dignity and respect.

Stogner McDavid is a 28-year flight attendant at United Airlines, formerly with Continental, based here in Houston, and the president of the Harris County AFL-CIO Labor Assembly.

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