It took everything Bobby Kirkpatrick had to save for a down payment on the home he recently purchased in west Charlotte.
The 57-year-old makes just over $15 an hour driving the trucks that deliver meals for flights out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where he’s worked for 38 years. Kirkpatrick, who is about to get remarried, said he wanted his fiance and her two children to live in a safe neighborhood. So he started cutting grass to earn extra income.
“My salary affects everything I do,” he said. “I can’t even walk to the mailbox without thinking about my salary.”
Kirkpatrick is one of thousands of U.S. airline catering industry employees who have voted to strike or are considering to do so. The workers are frustrated by low wages and high health care costs, according to their union. They prepare food and drinks for American, Delta, United and other airlines, but most work for third-party companies.
Under U.S. law, a strike would need to be approved by a federal agency. But if workers strike, it could mean flights won’t have food and beverages, said union spokesman Adam Yalowitz. The workers’ responsibilities include preparing meals and drinks passengers may have on flights. They also load that food onto planes.
At Charlotte Douglas, around 175 people work for the nation’s largest airline catering company, LSG Sky Chefs. The union that represents workers in Charlotte and elsewhere, Unite Here, is in the midst of federal mediation with LSG Sky Chefs over a new contract.
A report prepared by the union found that Charlotte’s minimum wage for airline catering workers of $8.40 per hour was the lowest of any hub airport. But analysts have said Charlotte is also among the most profitable hubs for American Airlines, with the highest operating margin.
Workers at the airport plan to vote on whether to authorize union leaders to request a strike, though a date has not been set. Employees in over two dozen airports, including Chicago, San Francisco and Miami, have already approved a strike.
Because the union has not been allowed to strike yet, Josh Freed, a spokesman for American, said the airline does not anticipate any impact to its catering operations. But he said the airline will continue to monitor the situation.
“They (airline catering workers) don’t have quite the leverage that, say, a pilots union does, or flight attendants, where flights literally can’t get off the ground,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who focuses on labor and employment law. “On the other hand, you can have a lot of upset passengers.”
The union report found that the minimum wage for catering workers at Charlotte Douglas is $8.40 per hour. It was the lowest of the 35 airports the report looked at where LSG Sky Chefs operates.
The second lowest was Dallas, another American hub. New York’s John F. Kennedy International had the highest minimum wage, at $15 per hour.
Mecklenburg County residents earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 need to work 109 hours per week to afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment, a report released this month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found.
When Kirkpatrick started working for LSG Sky Chefs in 1981, he was making around $4.25 an hour. That’s nearly $12 an hour in today’s dollars.
In the aftermath of 9/11, airline workers across the industry took pay cuts as passenger demand fell and flights were canceled. Kirkpatrick’s salary, which was close to $40,000 a year, suffered and has never recovered. He earns around $32,000 a year now.
“We gave vacation, money, we gave sick time,” Kirkpatrick said. “It helped the airlines and it helped the company ... now they’re getting record profits.”
LSG Sky Chefs was once a subsidiary of American Airlines, but it was sold and merged with Lufthansa’s LSG division in 2001.
In a statement, David Margulies, a spokesman for LSG Sky Chefs, said the company is continuing to negotiate in “good faith” with the union over the collective bargaining agreement.
“Our company values the hard work and dedication of our team members,” the statement said. “Wages, as well as other benefits, including vacations, uniforms, and company provided meals, as well as health and welfare, are subject to the collective bargaining process between our company and their union representatives.”
Who is responsible?
At a 2017 American Airlines shareholder meeting, Kirkpatrick spoke up in front of American CEO Doug Parker about low pay for food workers.
And while Parker said Kirkpatrick would have to take up his wages with LSG Sky Chefs, he also told him the airline would “do what we can to make sure your employer understands that we’re willing to do our part,” according to news reports from the meeting.
While the airlines don’t employ the catering workers, Kirkpatrick and leaders of the movement nationally say the airlines bear some responsibility. Margulies said that American is one of LSG Sky Chef’s largest customers.
Last year, American Airlines reported a net profit of $1.4 billion.
“American Airlines profited billions and billions of dollars,” Kirkpatrick said. “And people like me, we haven’t gotten a raise in years.”
Freed said in the statement for American that because the airline is not the only customer of LSG Sky Chefs, LSG needs to manage its relationship with its union and employees. He said the airline respects the right to collective bargaining, and noted that around 85% of American Airlines employees are represented by unions.
Still, airlines employ third-party companies like LSG Sky Chefs to keep costs down, said Joe Brancatelli, a New York-based editor of business travel website JoeSentMe.
“When the employees say, ‘You know, American Airlines made a billion dollars last year thanks to our work and we get nothing,’ American can shrug its shoulders saying, ‘Well it’s not us, they don’t work for us,’ ” he said.
Airline workers are governed under a federal law called the Railway Labor Act. Under that rule, employees cannot strike without a formal release from the National Mediation Board.
In July, Unite Here will request a release to strike from that board, said Yalowitz, from the union. If approved, that would be followed by a 30-day cooling-off period, after which the workers could legally strike, he said.
Dan Bowling, a law professor at Duke University, said the increased attention on inequality could help the workers make their case to the public. In 2014, Charlotte was ranked last among 50 cities for economic mobility in a study from researchers at UC Berkeley and Harvard University.
“That’s an argument that resonates not with all, but with many people in this country,” he said. “Given the overall political climate and the context we’re in, that may give the strikers more leverage.”
Last Thursday, Kirkpatrick and other employees handed out leaflets to travelers at Charlotte Douglas to inform them of the workers’ cause.
“We have made American Airlines the best airline in the country,” he said. “But what we do, people don’t see.”