Thirty-nine people were cited by police for failure to disperse Tuesday evening at Philadelphia International Airport as part of a nationwide push during Thanksgiving week to win higher wages and more affordable health care for the low-wage workers who prepare airline meals.

The protests, which occurred at 17 airports, were the latest in a series of public actions by service workers union Unite Here to pressure American Airlines to help give workers better wages and benefits in their current contract negotiations.

The workers — 400 in Philadelphia and 20,000 nationwide — are employed by subcontractors, but Unite Here has adopted a common labor strategy by targeting American Airlines: It’s an acknowledgment of who holds the economic power.

Protesters march in front of American Airline at terminal C. Airline caterers, represented by union UNITE HERE, and their supporters are protesting high health coverage costs and low wages. Some 39 protesters were arrested for lying down blocking the roadway in front of the terminal. Tuesday, November 26, 2019.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Protesters march in front of American Airline at terminal C. Airline caterers, represented by union UNITE HERE, and their supporters are protesting high health coverage costs and low wages. Some 39 protesters were arrested for lying down blocking the roadway in front of the terminal. Tuesday, November 26, 2019.

In Philadelphia, airline catering workers employed by LSG Sky Chefs, many of whom are immigrants from West Africa, in 2018 were able to get covered by a city law that raised their wages from $7.90 an hour to $12.20. That law, which applies to those employed by city contractors and subcontractors, has since increased their wages to $13.25 an hour.

But Unite Here says health-care coverage for these workers is increasingly unaffordable, which tracks with a national trend of employer-sponsored health-care costs going up for low-wage workers.

Protesters march in front of American Airline at terminal C. Airline caterers, represented by union UNITE HERE, and their supporters are protesting high health coverage costs and low wages. Some 39 protesters were arrested for lying down blocking the roadway in front of the terminal. Tuesday, November 26, 2019.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Protesters march in front of American Airline at terminal C. Airline caterers, represented by union UNITE HERE, and their supporters are protesting high health coverage costs and low wages. Some 39 protesters were arrested for lying down blocking the roadway in front of the terminal. Tuesday, November 26, 2019.

In 2019, the plan with the lowest premiums would cost an individual $28 a week, or nearly $1,500 a year, with a deductible of $2,000. The family plan with the lowest premiums would cost $123 a week, or nearly $6,400 a year, with a deductible of $4,000.

In 2018, 28% of the Philly workers got health care through LSG Sky Chefs and 5% were getting family coverage, the union said.

An LSG spokesperson said that the two parties are making progress on negotiations with the help of a federal mediator. American spokesperson Andrew Trull said the company was confident that the catering companies and Unite Here would “negotiate new nationwide agreements that increase pay and benefits,” adding: “We are not in a position to control the outcome of their negotiations or dictate what wages or benefits are agreed upon between the catering companies and their employees.”

Some workers, like Fatoumata Kaba, an immigrant from Guinea and a mother of three, say the family coverage is too expensive. Kaba, 40, used to cover her family through Medicaid but recently canceled her coverage when she heard that using public health insurance could affect her application for citizenship as part of a new rule established by the Trump administration.

Right now, she and her family are uninsured. All her children — the youngest is 8 and the oldest is 17 — “are seriously overdue for their physicals,” she said.

“To me, health care is a human right,” she said. “We are putting food on their planes. We shouldn’t struggle.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.