Food fight!

Not many people saw the red-shirted crowd clumped on a berm next to the nondescript LSG Sky Chefs building on April 9, but still it was a first: the (semi-)public emergence of a contract dispute between unionized sandwich-makers at Orlando International Airport and the airline conglomerate for which they labor.

Only about 30 at a time were allowed to congregate for chants and speeches, though the Sky Chefs building sits far from the flow of tourists through the terminals. It's even past the long-term budget parking lot, so witnesses were limited to employees of nearby offices and the officers of four Orlando Police Department cruisers. But that's more of an audience than previous rallies had, since those were staged inside the Sky Chefs building, according to Eric Clinton, president of UNITE HERE! Local 362.

Shop steward Irma Candelaria, a five-year employee of Sky Chefs, urged her coworkers to stick together in confronting management, even as the company plans two rounds of layoffs.

"In case you don't know, I think I'm one of the ones the company is going to get rid of," she told them.

The company plans to lay off 81 of the roughly 300 local workers, citing recent cutbacks on food service by several airlines, Clinton says.

At the UNITE HERE! rally, a procession of representatives from supportive unions and pro-labor groups, both inside and outside the airport, encouraged the Sky Chefs crew: United Food and Commercial Workers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement; Central Florida Jobs With Justice and several others.

That's one sign of a possible change in the wind at Orlando International. With a Democratic administration in charge and a few emerging signs that the economic recession is easing, unions are feeling a bit bolder in seeking to organize new workers, getting better deals for those they already represent and reaching out to each other.

As Orlando Weekly recently reported, the American Federation of Government Employees and National Treasury Employees Union have both petitioned the Federal Labor Relations Authority to allow a vote among the airport's 1,100 transportation security officers.

Both are large unions — the NTEU covers about 150,000 federal employees, while AFGE is an arm of the AFL-CIO — and already have made inroads in organizing the country's 40,000 TSOs. What they're really hoping for, however, is the right to collectively bargain for employment contracts, not just negotiate claims for discrimination, worker's compensation and disciplinary action, says Cathie McQuiston, AFGE assistant director of membership and organization.

That's a right only the federal Transportation Security Administration director can grant, and collective bargaining was forbidden by the Bush administration's agency head. Although two Obama nominees for the job have withdrawn from consideration, unions still hope for a policy change that would give them a lot more clout.

In another part of the airport, the Communications Workers of America are seeking to organize 89 ticket agents for American Airlines and its regional-carrier subsidiary American Eagle, local organizer Mo Johnson says.

"Right now we're at the first stage of it," he says. If successful, those would be the first workers CWA represents at the airport. But it's a nationwide effort, not just local, and seeks to organize Piedmont and Delta employees too, Johnson says.

Since union organizing can't be carried on during work, the first hurdle is getting a list of contacts among the employees, Johnson says. He hopes local workers, once in communication outside of the jobsite, will form a committee to do most of the organizing themselves.

But beyond that, CWA and other unions that represent employees at Orlando International are talking about building a coalition to support one another, Johnson says. He's got a meeting scheduled this week with an organizer for one of the unions seeking to represent TSA employees.

"Hopefully we can work together and help each other out," Johnson says.

That sort of cooperation and encouragement is needed by workers like Sky Chefs employees, who are mostly Hispanic women — grandmothers and single parents — working under rough conditions, Clinton says.

Their fast-moving assembly line in a room that's kept at 40 degrees and the thousands of sandwiches they make there go not only into airplane galleys but into the deli coolers of 7-Eleven stores in most of Florida, he says.

In 2006 the Sky Chefs workers took a wage freeze that's still in effect and a cut of roughly 30 percent in benefits: less time off, a decreased retirement plan, more expensive health insurance, Clinton says.

According to Candelaria, some Sky Chefs employees with a decade of service are still only making $7 an hour.

Sky Chefs is owned by German airline Lufthansa, which saw its 2009 profits drop substantially from the previous year — but still came out $176 million in the black.

Contract talks have been going on since October, but Sky Chefs has been "dragging its feet," so the union has staged rallies in a number of cities where Sky Chefs has facilities, Clinton says. Only a fraction of employment issues have been worked out, and none of them involves money, he says. In contrast, contract talks with Gate Gourmet — the only airline-food company bigger than Sky Chefs — have resolved all non-economic issues in less time, he says.

Beth van Duyne, North American media rep for LSG Sky Chefs, says the company is negotiating in good faith and has made some progress but is "somewhat disappointed" that employees chose to go public with the dispute.

"We believe that the best negotiations are done at the negotiating table," she says. The company provides health and dental insurance, "competitive" wages and a secure working environment for its roughly 6,600 American employees despite the "difficult economic climate," van Duyne says.

That claim is of little comfort to Roberto Roldan, a Sky Chefs truck driver with nearly 29 years of service. After all those years he makes $10.80 per hour and last year had to drop his company medical coverage because he couldn't afford the premiums, he says.

"I hope I don't get sick this year, because if I get sick, I'm in big trouble," Roldan says.

He spent his 15-minute break at the union rally to join in the call for better benefits and compensation — no specific figure, but just something he'd consider a more fair return for dedicated labor.

"I'd like the company to understand that I like the company, and I work hard for them," Roldan says.

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