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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Transit workers are ideally positioned to push down on the levers of power

Thanksgiving is arguably the worst U.S. holiday. Even outside of the horrific genocidal history it papers over, the days surrounding our long-ritualized consumption of large dry birds and soggy side dishes—generally in the presence of our least-favorite blood relations—comprise one of the most reliably hectic travel periods of the year, and 2019 will be no exception. AAA estimates that forty-nine million Americans will be traveling at least fifty miles by car to Thanksgiving this year, while Airlines for America anticipates thirty-one million will fly between November 22 and December 3. The environmental impact will be brutal, and the stress of handling all those irate passengers is a heavy burden for airport workers. Some mayhem is expected, but thanks to the labor of always overworked and frequently underpaid transportation workers, most travelers make it home in time for turkey.

This year, though, that journey might be a little more complicated. Yesterday, airline catering workers at seventeen major air transit hubs—including New York’s JFK, Chicago’s O’Hare, Los Angeles’s LAX, and Washington’s DCA—staged what their union, UNITE HERE, called the largest demonstration of workers at U.S. airports in years. The protests were part of an escalating campaign to draw attention to the plight of airline catering workers, many of whom “live in poverty” while American Airlines, who purchases their services via subcontractors LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, reported a net profit of $1.4 billion in 2018. As UNITE HERE notes, a recent survey of hundreds of Sky Chefs employees found that “30 percent of the workers were uninsured and 35 percent rely on government-subsidized healthcare for themselves or their kids.”

The catering workers’ contracts became amendable on December 31 of last year; Gate Gourmet began mediation on September 26, 2018, and Sky Chefs on May 21, 2019[*]. Pay, health care, and unsafe working conditions are major issues at the bargaining table for both groups of workers. “I work at American Airlines’ biggest hub at DFW, which is also the company’s hometown where American Airlines has built a fancy new headquarters,” says UNITE HERE member Stephanie Kopnang. “Yet, we’re among the worst paid catering kitchens in the country. If I don’t do overtime, I wouldn’t be able to afford rent and monthly bills.”

UNITE HERE’s members have been challenging these unsustainable, exploitative conditions for months now, from last month’s Philadelphia die-in to protests staged at multiple airports over the summer. In July, airline catering workers at thirty-three airports voted overwhelmingly to strike when released by the National Mediation Board. The clock is ticking for airlines to start taking these workers seriously and meeting their demands because as they’ve made abundantly clear, the workers are willing to go the distance to win the contract they—and their families—deserve. “I’m in this fight for my twelve-year-old daughter Ariana; I pay $400 per month for the company’s health insurance just to be able to take her to the doctor to treat her chronic asthma,” explains Shandolyn Lewis, an airline catering worker in Detroit. “We work for a subcontractor LSG Sky Chefs, but our work makes the airlines money. Without us, the airlines wouldn’t have food or water to offer passengers. We can’t afford to wait anymore for what we deserve.”

“We’re among the worst paid catering kitchens in the country. If I don’t do overtime, I wouldn’t be able to afford rent and monthly bills.”

Alongside airline catering workers, the flight attendants currently steeling themselves for an influx of anxious or obnoxious Thanksgiving travelers (talk about emotional labor) have been fighting their own battles. Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants have also voted in favor of authorizing a strike—the first strike vote in the airline’s ninety-year history—following a breakdown in the contract negotiations that began in January 2017. Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants are paid less than those working in other states despite the high cost of living in the cities they call home. They’ve been holding informational pickets at Honolulu International Airport over the past six months with support from their union, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), and AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson, who joined them on the picket line in June. Like the UNITE HERE workers, they will be unable to legally strike until the National Mediation Board releases them from mediation and they undergo a thirty-day “cooling off period”—but after that, the sky’s the limit.

Airline workers are far from the only transit sector employees fighting back this month. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrobus drivers at the Cinder Bed Road garage in Virginia have now been on strike for thirty-five days. The workers are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, and the Cinder Bed Road garage is operated by Transdev, a French multinational corporation; it is the first privately-operated WMATA garage in four decades. Workers launched the strike on October 24 over safety concerns, unfair labor practices, and service issues, as well as the glaring issue of pay disparity—according to their union, the Transdev drivers perform the exact same job as those employed directly by WMATA but make $12 less per hour. Their health insurance deductible is $6,000, while the other WMATA workers have no deductible. This two-tiered wage and benefit system, in which workers are classed and paid differently while performing the same labor, echoes conditions that led to the General Motors strike earlier this year and nearly caused one at UPS in 2018. Bosses love tiers because they can save money on compensation, and in some cases, even turn union members against each other. But the inherent unfairness of the system rankles workers, and management’s attempt to divide them has begun to backfire. ATU Local 689’s esprit de corps has gotten them this far, and they’re not giving up; as they sang out in a recent music video by striker Otis Price, “Don’t play with my money, don’t play with my family!”

The Cinder Bed Road strike has been met with support from other union members, including those who work at Fairfax Connector, Virginia’s largest bus system and the third largest in the D.C. area. Unionized Fairfax Connector workers, whose contract expires this weekend, authorized a strike on November 9; their network is operated by—you guessed it—Transdev. And this isn’t the French company’s first brush with labor unrest in the DMV; in 2018, Transdev settled a lawsuit brought by five Baltimore paratransit drivers who claimed they were paid “$4 or $5 an hour,” according to one plaintiff. Earlier that year, the city of Baltimore sued Transdev for allegedly overbilling them by $20 million to operate the free Charm City Circulator bus service.

It’s hard to imagine the company trying this kind of brutish malfeasance at their Paris headquarters. French workers are infamous for their perpetual willingness to strike, and those in the transit sector have already undertaken multiple huge work stoppages this year, with more planned for next month. Just north of the U.S. border, about 3,000 Canadian National Railway workers went out on their first strike in a decade on November 19; yesterday, it was announced that Teamsters Canada and Canadian National had reached a tentative deal. The strike posed big problems for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s fragile government as it disrupted the transportation of oil and agricultural across the country.

Meanwhile, Lufthansa is facing down a potential strike over the Christmas period; Italian airport traffic controllers brought air travel to a screeching halt on Monday, grounding more than a hundred Alitalia flights; and workers at South African Airlines just ended a difficult strike. Finnair, Finland’s national airline, had to cancel nearly three hundred flights this past Sunday and Monday due to a sympathy strike launched by airline workers in response to a labor dispute affecting more than 9,000 workers in the country’s postal service. The strike also spread to bus drivers in Helsinki, and in a blow to tourism as well as the economy, the Finnish Seafarer’s Union has stopped all cargo and passenger ships flying the Finnish flag until further notice.

These kinds of sympathy strikes are mostly illegal in the United States thanks to the hated Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which placed restrictions on secondary boycotts, jurisdictional strikes, and so-called “wildcat” strikes—that is, strikes that violate no-strike clauses or occur without union leadership’s approval. The West Virginia teachers who kicked off the current #RedforEd wave were wildcatting, as were those who followed their lead in Kentucky and Oklahoma. The Teamsters who refused to deliver General Motors vehicles to dealerships during the recent GM strike were also arguably engaging in the kind of secondary boycott banned by Taft-Hartley. Some rules were made to be broken. Still, the existence of the Act makes it difficult for U.S. workers to mount the kind of large-scale work stoppages our counterparts in other countries achieve with impressive regularity. Chile and Colombia both launched national strikes this month; the streets of Rome swelled with strikers in October; Sudan, India, and Catalonia all called general strikes in 2019; protestors in Hong Kong called one in August; and earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of women in Spain hit the bricks for a coordinated day-long strike on International Women’s Day.

While the restrictions of Taft-Hartley may make large-scale working class rebellion in the vein of that we’ve seen take place overseas difficult, they also point to the importance of ongoing labor actions by transit workers: our transportation infrastructure is vulnerable, and unionized workers can wreak real havoc on it.

These kinds of sympathy strikes are mostly illegal in the United States thanks to the hated Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

This is something that unions like the Teamsters and International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have always understood. Delivery drivers and transit workers are perfectly positioned to pull down—hard—on the levers of power. Right now, more than three hundred members of Denver, Colorado’s Teamsters Local 455 are on strike at the city’s Sysco food distribution plant over safety concerns. And The ILWU’s proud militant history cannot be understated; the union is currently under threat from a $93.6 million judgment against it for labor slowdown and stoppages in Portland that their lawyers argue were driven by employment practices.

As these and the other transit workers mentioned above make clear, one surefire means of attracting attention to a problem is messing with peoples’ travel plans—or with shipping their consumer products, delivering their packages, or transporting them from point A to point B. At Workers’ Revival Fest, a 2018 arts and organizing event in Kansas City put on by Missouri Jobs With Justice, I sat down with a grizzled older gentleman with a shock of grey hair who had worked on railroads for decades. According to him, people don’t realize the amount of power that the railroad still has, and how crucial transportation infrastructure is to keeping this country running. “We could shut this country down in three days,” he told me.

After airports erupted in protest in 2017 in response to Trump’s repugnant Muslim Travel Ban (which is still in effect and potentially expanding), the initial ban was blocked by the courts, then softened. When Blackjewel miners blocked a Kentucky coal train until they were paid back wages, they captured national attention—and got their money. Less than a week after AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson asked her fellow union leaders to consider the idea of a general strike to end Trump’s cruel and petty government shutdown, flights at major airports were grounded over safety concerns when several East Coast air traffic controllers called in sick; the shutdown ended the next day. There is a reason that even the idea of a subway workers’ strike sends fear into the heart of every New Yorker, or the mere possibility of a cascade of cancelled flights made a tyrannical pissant back down. Transportation workers hold the keys to the economy and to our society at large; without them, nothing and nobody can get where they need to go—no matter how important they believe themselves to be.

[*] Correction: This article has been revised to correct a mistake in the original version: Gate Gourmet’s and LSG SkyChefs’s contracts do not expire, but both contracts became amendable in December 2018. The workers also began mediation at different times.