• Embassy Listings • Ambassador Listings • Medical • Education • Hotels • Travel • Automotive • Real Estate • Foreign Film Directory • Diplomatic Spotlight • Classifieds


Airline Workers in D.C. Fight for a Living Wage

By Virginia Sciolino 

On July 23, airline food workers rallied at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to call for living wages, health insurance and job security.

American Airlines, Delta and United reported over $50 billion in combined profits over the past five years, according to Unite Here, which claims these profits do not go on to benefit food workers. Two-thirds of airline food workers make less than $15 per hour, and many don’t make minimum wage. 

The rally attracted political heavyweights, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Bill DeBlasio and Elizabeth Warren.

It also drew widespread union attention.

The rally was organized by Unite Here, a labor union for hospitality workers that boasts over 300,000 members from the U.S. and Canada. Airline workers from the Airline Pilots Association and the Flight Attendants Union marched by their side.

Other union attendees included those from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, United Mine Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, United Food and Commercial Workers and the Service Employees International Union. Alongside them stood activists from Germany and representatives from organizations like CASA in Action, an immigrants rights group.

Unite Here union rally
Unite Here union members held signs that read, “One job should be enough.” The union utilized the same slogan during the Marriott workers’ strike, and the phrase has been adopted by other protesters in the “Fight for $15” campaign.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler asked the crowd, “Do you feel the solidarity?” “I know what the power of solidarity looks like as I look out across this crowd,” she said. “This is the power of the labor movement, standing alongside our partners and our allies. And what happens when we stand together? We win.”

They gathered outside of DCA, holding signs that read “We feed the world - our kids go hungry” as they chanted “One job should be enough.” 

The strike also took place alongside other American worker strikes over the past year. Since 2018, American employees at Marriott, McDonalds and Stop and Shop have joined teachers striking in favor of a livable wage. Labor unions no longer wield the clout they once did, with membership at 10.5% in 2018, the lowest rate since 1935. But the momentum of progressives like Sanders and Warren has thrust the issue of living wages and increasing inequality to the forefront of the political debate.

According to Shuler, “This is the power of the labor movement…. Workers are rising up in this country, and we’re seeing it over and over again because paychecks are not going far enough.”

Airline food work is one of the lowest paid airport jobs. One worker said that the cost of living in D.C. is so high in relation to her low wages that she was forced to move in with a relative. Some of her coworkers, she explained, voluntarily work for 80 to 90 hours per week. Others, despite being employed full-time, are homeless. 

The speakers focused on the record profits made by Delta, American Airlines and United, whose CEOs are salaried for tens of millions of dollars while their workers live near the poverty line. Tlaib told the crowd, “You can have both. You can make money fairly and still provide for your workers that help you make record profit.”

Bill de Blasio rally
New York Mayor and presidential candidate, Bill de Blasio, speaks to hundreds of protesters who packed into Terminal A of the Ronald Reagan Washington Airport.

Workers were also rallying for better health care and working conditions.  

One worker explained, “After three years’ work, I make $10.85 per hour. We have to pay, for a single person, $50 per week for health care. Do the math.” She asked the crowd, “How are you going to survive at the end of the month?” 

Food workers are on their feet for several hours a day, and some are forced to work in refrigerated environments lower than 40 degrees while others are denied air conditioning during the summer months. Mayor DeBlasio pointed out that, given that fewer than a third of these workers have health insurance, their health can influence their working conditions, too. 

And these employees, who work behind the scenes, wield heavy influence over other airline workers. Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said, “If one group cannot do their job, the rest of us cannot do our job, either. It doesn’t work. The planes don’t fly. That’s why we stood at this very airport, at this very spot, and said that if our federal sector sisters and brothers could not do their job or were forced to come to work without pay, then we were going to call on this country to call for a general strike in response.” 

Nelson is referring to her January call for a general strike in response to the partial government shutdown earlier this year. Some political analysts credit the shortage and striking by air traffic controllers with ending the shutdown.  

Because airline work is precise and international, workers’ strikes have powerful effects. This is why airline workers must operate within the law by voting to authorize a strike. In June, over 11,000 food workers voted to do just that. 

Unite Here hopes this event can be the lynchpin of its forthcoming week of mass mobilization to draw attention to poverty in the airline industry. 

To learn more about Unite Here, visit https://unitehere.org/

Virginia Sciolino is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



List your upcoming events here. For $275 per listing (as low as $150 with a term contract), your event listing will reach our thousands of subscribers. If you are reading this ad, you know it works. Call (301) 933-3552 for more information.

Subscriber Services

• Advertising • Contact us

You are receiving this message because you provided your email address to us for The Diplomatic Pouch. If you do not want to receive future emails from us, please click Unsubscribe to be removed from the list.

About the Pouch

The Diplomatic Pouch is an email newsletter distributed to opt-in subscribers and produced by The Washington Diplomat, an independent monthly newspaper. The Pouch covers the diplomatic community, international affairs, politics, arts and culture, and social life in Washington, D.C. Although a complement to The Washington Diplomat newspaper, all content is original and exclusively written for the Pouch.

© 2017 The Washington Diplomat. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution, transmission or republication is prohibited.