United's Catering Workers Unionized. Now Their Jobs Might Be Outsourced.

The hospitality union Unite Here says the airline is trying to avoid a union contract after receiving billions in rescue money from the government.

In 2018, United Airlines’ catering workers in five cities voted to unionize by an overwhelming margin. Two and a half years later, they still have not secured a contract, and the airline may outsource their jobs.

United has issued a request for bids from contractors interested in taking on the airline’s kitchen work at its hubs in Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Honolulu and Newark. The company has not committed to requiring any potential contractors to retain the workers or to bargain with their union, though it says it would work to prioritize the current workforce for new positions.

A United spokesperson said the airline hasn’t made a final decision yet on outsourcing, which it first proposed in January, and no changes would come until late this year at the earliest.

But Unite Here, which represents the workers, is concerned that many might lose their jobs.

Joseph Alcantara, who drives a truck that loads meals onto United flights at the Cleveland airport, supported the union effort because he believes United should pay higher wages. After six years, he earns $14.79 per hour doing a job that he says is dangerous due to the heights at which he works.

He views the outsourcing overture as a way for United to avoid dealing with the union’s demands for better pay and benefits.

“It’s not right the way they’ve treated us,” Alcantara told HuffPost. “Now they just don’t want to pay the workers. They want to get rid of us.”

“They’re creating all-out war by sending these letters to our people.”

- Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23

The airline industry has had a tumultuous year since travel nearly came to a halt at the start of the pandemic. But U.S. airlines are optimistic about the months ahead, with increased vaccinations and more stimulus spending leading to a jump in bookings. As of Wednesday, United’s stock price was more than double what it was a year ago.

If United chooses to outsource the kitchen work, it would be following in the footsteps of other major carriers that have offloaded food preparation onto outside firms. Companies often contract out certain functions to focus their attention on so-called core competencies, though such outsourcing often results in lower pay and less desirable working conditions.

In 2018, United’s kitchen workers ultimately voted 1,253 to 486 in favor of the union, a resounding 72-28 margin. Many workers celebrated the successful campaign in part because the rest of United’s frontline workforce — including flight attendants and ramp agents — was already organized. Alcantara saw the victory as a way to get the caterers “their fair share.”

Getting to that point was not easy. United managed to postpone the election for months after accusing the union of misrepresenting itself to workers during the organizing campaign, prompting an investigation by the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that oversees collective bargaining in the airline industry. The board’s general counsel dismissed the claims and ordered the election to move ahead.

Now Unite Here is accusing the company of not bargaining in good faith and trying to avoid reaching a first contract. The union said that, after more than two years, United still has not made an economic offer that would cover wages and basic benefits, even as the company is soliciting bids from outside firms.

United sent out a request for bids for its kitchen work earlier this year, putting more than 2,000 jobs in limbo.
United sent out a request for bids for its kitchen work earlier this year, putting more than 2,000 jobs in limbo.
FangXiaNuo via Getty Images

Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23 (which represents the catering workers), said the notices the airline sent employees about the potential outsourcing of their jobs was part of a broader pattern of “anti-union” behavior. She called it “brazen” that the company might avoid a union contract after accepting billions in government bailout funds for the airline industry.

“It’s all about bad-faith bargaining,” she said. “They’re creating all-out war by sending these letters to our people.”

The airline argues that soliciting contractor bids is about the pandemic.

“Given the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on our business, United continues to explore ways to do things differently and become more efficient wherever we can,” the company spokesperson told HuffPost.

United has received $7.7 billion in payroll support through congressional coronavirus relief programs passed under former President Donald Trump, with another roughly $2.4 billion to come in another the stimulus passed under President Joe Biden, according to the Financial Times. Although United will owe the government roughly $3 billion of that money, most of it won’t have to be paid back if United meets the law’s conditions on retaining workers.

United said any outsourcing plan it pursues would comply with the law. But even if the airline follows those requirements, some Democrats in Congress say it should not be outsourcing work after accepting government money to get through the pandemic. In a letter to United’s chief executive, Scott Kirby, this week, lawmakers said the company should “adhere to the spirit” of the payroll protection program, and ditch “any plan that would outsource thousands of jobs when the industry is already projecting financial recovery.”

“We did not take these actions to increase their stock prices. We took these actions to keep workers on the payroll.”

- Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.)

In an online press conference Wednesday, Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), who represents Newark, said the major airlines are rebounding in large part because of the government help that got them through the worst of the pandemic.

“We did not take these actions to increase their stock prices. We took these actions to keep workers on the payroll,” Payne said. “That was our initial goal. Now that the economy is improving, they want to outsource.”

Many airline workers have been furloughed or seen their hours reduced during the pandemic. Alcantara is still working 20 hours a week at the Cleveland airport, as opposed to the full-time schedule he had before lockdown. He recently took a second job driving a truck and handling store displays for Coca-Cola.

He said he hopes that if his United job is outsourced he will be given preference for a new position based on his seniority, and that his union will still be recognized by the new employer. He said some of his colleagues have been working their jobs for 20 years and don’t know what they’ll do if they lose them.

“A lot of workers took a sacrifice,” Alcantara said. “Right now we’re scared, we’re in limbo, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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