Editor’s Note, 10/23/18: United Airlines’ 2,700 catering workers, including 570 employees at United’s DIA kitchen, voted overwhelming to form a union with UNITE HERE. Despite United Airlines filing a complaint earlier this year alleging the workers did not understand what the UNITE HERE union was representing, and that the workers therefore should not be able to vote, the workers moved forward with their effort and won their unionization battle. UNITE HERE will now be representing the workers and a formal bargaining process with the airline will proceed.

Enstrasio Takashy came to America for his family. When he left the tiny island of Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia about 625 miles southeast of Guam, it was in hopes of better economic opportunity. “The American dream, you know?” he says.

He’s expected to provide for his wife and kids, as well as his mother and his large extended family. He first moved to Hawaii, where he worked for McDonalds and KFC, to gain some experience in the food industry. Then, about six years ago, he moved to Colorado and ultimately found work in the United Airlines catering kitchen at Denver International Airport. United—the Chicago-based airline with a Denver hub—provides the only flight that services his home island, and working for the airline meant that he and his family would receive flight benefits, allowing them to travel between Colorado and Micronesia while he earned a living in the United States.

Takashy wasn’t the only one attracted to this opportunity. Of the nearly 570 workers at United’s kitchen at DIA, approximately 35 percent are Pacific Islanders—immigrants who came to Colorado from places like the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Micronesia. Through food production, sanitation, and transportation, the workers prepare meals for passengers, pilots, and flight attendants on Denver’s United Airlines flights. Many of these immigrants work in the kitchen specifically because of the flight benefit. And many of those workers are unsatisfied.

In response to what they claim are low wages and poor working conditions, a group of Pacific Islanders at United’s catering kitchen—in conjunction with workers in United kitchens across the country—are leading an effort to unionize their workforce. Some Denver workers claim that they’re forced to work in 34-degree industrial refrigerators and aren’t provided warm enough uniforms. Some say women have been timed going to the restroom. Some claim they’ve been bullied into working while injured and that their hourly wages top out between $11 and $13. In response to their effort to unionize, some of these workers say that United has tried to intimidate them, threatening to strip them of the coveted flight benefit.

5280 brought these claims to United’s attention, but the airline did not issue an on-the-record response.

This double-sided plaque features the face of each kitchen worker in Denver who signed a card in support of the unionization effort. Photo by Jay Bouchard.

Last summer, workers in United’s catering kitchen at DIA began an underground movement, gauging their coworkers’ interest in organizing. They ultimately began working with Unite Here, a union that represents approximately 15,000 airline catering workers across the country and hopes to add United’s kitchens to its count. Takashy and about 50 other leaders in Denver began signing up their coworkers on union authorization cards (the first step in forming a labor union); they would need more than 50 percent of the workforce to sign cards in order to file for an election with the National Mediation Board, a federal agency that coordinates labor-management relations. In Denver, 80 percent of the United kitchen workers signed cards. Nationally, at United’s four other kitchens in Cleveland, Newark, Houston, and Honolulu, 76 percent signed cards. In January, the workers submitted their application for an election and are still waiting for a date to be set. Once the election date is set, all 2,700 United kitchen workers nationwide will be mailed a ballot on which they can vote for or against forming a union.

Many airline industry workers are already unionized or actively organizing. At American Airlines, for instance, 85 percent of workers already belong to a union, and Delta and Jet Blue employees are ramping up organization efforts, Forbes reports. At United, nearly 80 percent of the company’s 88,000 workers—including pilots, mechanics, and flight attendants—already belong to a union. And according to Joel Pally, a research analyst for Unite Here who has been assisting the workers in Denver, United’s kitchen workers are the only non-managerial, frontline workers at the airline who don’t already belong to a union. Pally also noted that “within the airline catering industry, almost every other major group is unionized as well.”

While United’s kitchen workers in Denver are joining forces with workers across the country, “The Micronesian community here has really stepped up,” Pally says. “Given the overall support and the strength of the leadership here, it’s been very inspiring.”

Despite that, some workers say that United has ramped up its messaging discouraging unionization over the past three months. “Coming to Denver has meant a lot. It allows us to help our families,” says Solomon Jacklick, a 26-year-old immigrant from the Marshall Islands who prepares meals for first-class flights. “But now that we’re fighting for our union, the company is really scaring us.”

When 5280 approached United about the union effort, a spokesperson emailed the following statement: “United Airlines respects our employees’ rights to decide whether labor union representation is likely to serve the best interests of our employees and their families, and we respect all of our employees regardless of whether they choose to be represented by labor unions or not.”

The workers paint a different picture. According to Jacklick, United management has covered the hallways of the kitchen with fliers—one of which 5280 obtained a copy—that suggest workers’ flight benefits may not be guaranteed during contract negotiations with a union. Moreover, she says, a television was installed in the kitchen that broadcasts messages from managers telling workers the union won’t really help them. Jacklick also says that while initially some supervisors were sympathetic to the workers’ cause, that abruptly changed after they filed for election. Most concerning, Jacklick says, “They told us we’re going to lose our flying benefit.”

Regarding specific messaging from United directed at the workers, the airline did not provide on-the-record comment. 

Despite their fear, the catering workers are pressing on. Many of the workers are wearing red “Equality” lanyards and red armbands, a visible signal to management that they want to organize. On one hand, workers like Takashy and Jacklick want a better work environment for themselves. “I don’t think we have any voice [at work],” Takashy says. Both he and Jacklick say United management displays a lack of respect for the immigrant workers and that they’re often spoken to like children. “[The managers] think that we’re nobody here,” Jacklick says. “We’re really fighting for our equality.”

But on another hand, the workers want to organize primarily to help their families. “We’re not doing this for ourselves, we’re doing this for our children,” says Takashy, who rents a four-bedroom house in Aurora where he says 17 people live, including his wife, his four children, and his in-laws. In order to afford the $1,750 monthly rent, Takashy says he picked up a second job manufacturing signs.

“I barely see my kids,” Takashy says. “But I have to do it. I have to provide for them. We know we could move back home, but our kids wouldn’t have the same education. I know, for a fact, that education here is better.”

If the workers are successful in their effort to unionize, Takashy sees a bright future for himself working at United. “I see myself working for this company [in the future],” he says. “We just want our equal share. If we get that, I won’t be working two jobs. I’ll see my kids more often.”

As the workers wait for their opportunity to vote to unionize, they remain confident. Jacklick put it simply: “We are winning this.”

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.