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When the cheering stopped, Senator Bernie Sanders’ words echoed through a packed atrium inside Reagan National Airport Tuesday evening. “I want to congratulate all of you for the courage you’re showing by standing up for yourselves, for your families, and for workers across the country,” he told hundreds of airline catering workers gathered at DCA. He talked about “corporate greed” and how hard it is to live in D.C. on $12 or $13 an hour, before ending on a hopeful note: “The American worker deserves better and will get better. Because we are going to stand up to corporate America.”
In early June, airline catering employees at DCA voted unanimously to authorize a strike, and workers at dozens of airports across the country soon followed. By now, more than 15,000 workers at 32 airports have authorized strikes, and if that strike comes to fruition, it could seriously disrupt the airline industry, leading to an avalanche of delays and cancellations.
Since flights are so critical for commerce, airport workers are not allowed to go on strike without permission from a federal agency called the National Mediation Board. It’s not clear if catering workers will be allowed to strike yet, but later this week, the workers will formally request permission. They say they’re prepared to carry out the nationwide strike as soon as they legally get the green light.
Catering workers came to the region from New York, Philadelphia, Texas, Los Angeles, and Germany to participate in the rally Tuesday, and a line of workers stretched toward the horizon in front of Terminals B and C as they picketed Tuesday afternoon.
“One job,” they chanted, “should be enough!”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Sanders, MayorBill de Blasio, and a dozen other members of Congress came to show their support for the workers. While many spoke from a stage indoors, Representative Rashida Tlaib boomed from the top of a tree planter in front of Terminal B, roaring about corporate greed under the July sun. “When they make record profits—$50 billion in the past five years—and they can’t give you enough to provide for your family, something is wrong.”
The workers’ chief demands are for a $15 minimum wage (currently, the median wage for DCA catering workers is $12.90) and higher wages for long-tenured employees, as well as lower health insurance premiums and deductibles. Right now, only 32 percent of Reagan caterers have company health insurance, according to their union representatives.
Nelson Robinsonsays he and his DCA colleagues have been picketing regularly since voting in June to strike. Robinson has been working in catering at Reagan for 10 years, and makes $14.35 an hour. He’s an airline coordinator, responsible for making sure flights have everything they need to take off, often driving around in trucks that don’t have air-conditioning. Robinson says the rally is about showing the the airlines and the Mediation Board, which currently has a Republican majority, that they’re determined. “We know they’re watching,” he says. “We just want them to know that this is a fight and that we’re serious about it.”
Even some catering workers were pleasantly surprised to see just how seriously their colleagues were taking the potential strike. After 30 years of catering at DCA, Eyerusalem Retta still makes $13.35 an hour, and in all those years, this is the first time the workers have authorized a strike. Tuesday afternoon, she was beaming. “I feel sooooooo happy,” she said as she surveyed the crowd. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“We want to send a clear message to American Airlines that this is escalating,” says Meghan Cohorst of UNITE HERE, which represents caterers at DCA and many other airports. American Airlines is the chief client of DCA caterers, and Cohorst says they have the worst pay in the industry. “That this is a crisis for our workers.”
In three weeks, catering workers will be heading to Dallas, where American is headquartered, to take the battle to their doorstep. “We want them to know that this is going to get bigger until they do the right thing,” Cohorst says. Tuesday’s rally, she explains, was mostly about sending a message: “These workers can’t wait for months or years for mediation. They have bills to pay now.”