Credit: Joshua Kaplan

Tenae Stover sat under a little tent outside of Reagan National Airport Wednesday, chatting with her coworkers. They asked her questions and joked around, waiting in line to vote on whether or not they will pursue a strike—a move that could rock the airline industry. Stover works for LSG Sky Chefs, which caters the in-flight food for most flights out of DCA, including on American, United, and Delta. Sky Chefs, a Lufthansa Airlines subsidiary, is the largest airline caterer in the world, with tens of thousands of employees across the globe. She says she has to prepare 720 meals on a typical day. “Sometimes, the job is not completed in eight hours,” she says, “so we have to work overtime.”

Stover has been preparing food for Sky Chefs for three years and seven months, and she makes $13 an hour. (The minimum wage for DMV airport employees is $12.15 an hour.) “It’s not enough,” she says. Two years ago, she was evicted because she couldn’t keep up with rent, and she moved in with a relative. She hasn’t been able to get her own place since. “Me losing my place was a battle between paying my rent, transportation, and food,” she says. “I couldn’t keep up with all of those expenses. The economy—rent—everything is constantly rising. And while it’s rising, we’re still left at the bottom, where we’re struggling with making ends meet.”

“That’s one of the main reasons I’m fighting,” she explains. “Being evicted because you’re not making enough working at one job.” Stover, who also has a leadership role in the workers’ committee within her union, UNITE HERE Local 23, shouted to a man dropping his ballot into the official shoebox. “Why don’t you look excited?”

“I don’t feel good,” he replied with a grimace. “We don’t get enough sick days.” They are two of 156 workers at Sky Chefs in DCA, and they join 11,000 other airline catering employees across the country who are voting this month to authorize strikes at the airports where they work. Dozens of workers came to the tent on their lunch break, with hair nets on their heads and over their beards. Several were sporting bright blue temporary tattoos: “I VOTED YES!”

After everyone went home Wednesday evening, union leaders tallied up the final vote: a majority of the workers voted during the day, and every single one of them voted in favor of the strike.

There are still significant legal barriers they must overcome before they actually can start the strike. The Railway Labor Act—meant to prevent disruptions to the national transportation network—prohibits airport workers from striking without permission from the National Mediation Board, a federal agency that currently has a Republican majority.

If they can get past that hurdle, the strike could significantly disrupt the airline industry, causing an avalanche of delays and cancelled flights across the country. “We’ve got the key to the airlines,” Stover says. Many airlines have policies that prohibit flights from taking off without food on board. “We’re the ones who do the catering,” she explains. “So without us catering, the planes won’t take off.

Workers have been in formal mediation with Sky Chefs since 2018. However, organizers say that all their employer has offered them so far is a 30-cent raise. Without a strike, the mediation process can last for years. “I’m tired of struggling and fighting back and forth with Sky Chefs,” says Stover, “and not getting anything on the table.”

Sky Chefs workers have been through the mediation process before.Sarah Jacobson, the organizing director for UNITE HERE Local 23, says that in 2006, still reeling from a decline in business after 9/11, the company told workers, “We don’t know if we’re going to survive,” and gave them an ultimatum: “Either give up 30 percent of their wages and benefits, or risk losing their jobs.” It was an impossible choice, but she says workers voted to take the pay cuts by a 51 percent margin.

But by 2009, Jacobson explains, Sky Chefs’ profits were surging while workers either got 10-cent raises or no raises at all. Some employees who’d been there since 1999 were making less than they made ten years prior. It took three-and-a-half years of negotiations, Jacobson says, to get workers their first substantive pay raise in a decade.

This time around, one of the workers’ chief demands is a $15 wage floor, at a company where the median DCA wage is $12.90 an hour. They also want additional raises for long-time Sky Chefs employees, likeEyerusalem Retta.

For 30 years, Retta has been working at DCA Sky Chefs assembling the snacks and beverages for flight attendants to use. When she started in 1989, she was making $5.15 an hour, but her raises have barely kept up with inflation, and she now gets $13.35—only slightly more than the new hires are paid. According to MIT professor Amy Glasmeier‘s Living Wage Calculator, a living wage in the D.C.-Arlington area is about $17.50 an hour.

Retta says she thought she’d be making more by now, enough to send her son to private school. He’s the reason she wants to go on strike: “If I have $15, I’m going to pay for him [to go to private school]. If not, [I have] no choice.”

In her long tenure, this is the first time a strike’s ever officially been on the table. “I’m excited. I’ve been fighting for a long time,” says Retta. “I hope we win.”

Right now, almost a quarter of Retta’s wages go to her company health insurance premiums, which cost $131 per week. She also hopes the strike can change that, as the union is asking for lower premiums and co-pays. “If we can get better health insurance, I’m willing to go all the way for that,” says Stover.

Currently, only 32 percent of the workers at DCA Sky Chefs have the company health insurance, and Stover says that while she pays for the insurance, high co-pays still keep her from going to the doctor. A few months ago, she had to get a tooth extracted, and the co-pays cost her almost $200. She tells City Paper she can only afford to use her insurance in emergencies. “I avoid going to the doctor and dentist because I can’t budget paying for surgeries and everything if need be,” she says. “So going to the doctor is the furthest from my mind.”

Workers say that catering for airlines can be a grueling job, with rigid deadlines, long holiday hours, and repetitive, manual labor that often leads to health problems—sore wrists, bad backs, hurt knees, and injured hands. Stover’s job is to prepare the cold food for flights, prepping the trays and making sure everything meets the airlines’ precise specifications. When she started, she was working in “the coolers,” which she says are kept at less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. “We were provided with lab coats, gloves, and hats, but it’s still freezing cold,” she says. “It’s to keep the food at a certain temperature.”

She no longer works in a cooler, but the pressure remains high—delayed food means delayed flights, and delayed flights are not tolerated. She gets three breaks, two 10-minute breaks, and another 30-minute break for lunch, over the course of those eight-plus hours. “It’s a lot for the amount of money that we’re making,” she says.

Stover says that workers at DCA have had a variety of reactions to the prospect of going on strike, but she thinks they all want to win. “This is what it’s going to take,” she says. “We know this is what it’s going to take. We’re willing to do it—It’s very exciting.”

Virginia Diamond, President of the Northern Virginia AFL-CIO, came by the tent today to show her support. “What these workers here are doing takes a lot of courage,” she tells City Paper. “In the region and across the country right now, there is an extraordinary amount of labor unrest because there’s a crisis of income inequality,” she says. “The only solution is this. Direct actions. Mobilizing. Strikes. There is no other solution.”

This post has been updated to reflect the results of the vote.