On Thursday, as the sun set over the American Airlines section of Terminal C at the Philadelphia International Airport, hundreds of workers cheered as Briheem Douglas got them fired up to march to American’s section in Terminal F.

“We wanna make sure that American hears us in every one of their terminals!” cried Douglas, the executive vice president of Unite Here Local 274.

The crowd, a sea of red shirts that read, “One job should be enough,” was protesting the high cost of health insurance for the low-wage workers who prep in-flight meals.

The workers are employed by a little-known American contractor called LSG Sky Chefs, and through their union, Unite Here, are negotiating a new contract with LSG. But at the protest, no one mentioned LSG.

Instead, it was American — the world’s largest airline in terms of passenger traffic — that was the target. Protesters waved signs about American’s profits and sang along to a spiritual, led by City Council candidate Nicolas O’Rourke, a pastor, that focused on the company (“People, people, can’t you see, what American’s done to me?”).

Demonstrators participate in a "die in" in the Terminal B and C ticketing area at the Philadelphia International Airport, where workers lay on the ground in order to protest high health care costs on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Demonstrators participate in a "die in" in the Terminal B and C ticketing area at the Philadelphia International Airport, where workers lay on the ground in order to protest high health care costs on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

It was a strategic decision on the part of Unite Here, one that’s been used successfully for decades in the labor movement and has only increased as subcontracting has become more common: to target the “lead business” -- American Airlines, in this case -- instead of the direct employer (LSG).

“That is where the economic power lies,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

If American sets a standard for its contractors, such as a higher minimum wage or more affordable health care, that standard will be priced into the bid, Jacobs said.

It’s happened before in Philadelphia, when the city passed a law in 2014 requiring city contractors, which includes airport workers, to pay a minimum wage of $12 an hour. And that wasn’t followed until the airlines, led by American, signed a lease agreement, stating that they would make sure their contractors followed the minimum wage. (American is the most powerful of the airlines operating at the Philadelphia airport because it controls 70% of traffic.)

American’s five-year lease agreement with the city will expire at the end of June, and Unite Here hopes to use this as a bargaining chip in its battle for more affordable health care for workers.

Demonstrators march in front of Terminal B and C at the Philadelphia International Airport during a protest against high health care costs on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Demonstrators march in front of Terminal B and C at the Philadelphia International Airport during a protest against high health care costs on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

LSG, which has said that the union’s demands would more than double the total cost of labor, maintained that the two parties are making progress on negotiations.

“We understand that a new contract will, ultimately, increase the costs to LSG Sky Chefs’ customers, including American,” said airline spokesperson Andrew Trull in a statement. “While we are not part of the ongoing negotiations, we urge both LSG Sky Chefs and Unite Here to bargain in good faith and get a deal done.”

‘Brand accountability work’

Three days after the airport protest, another group of activists assembled in Philadelphia, this time at Market East outside of the discount store Ross Dress for Less at Eighth and Market Streets.

Though the players and demands were different, the strategy was the same.

The protesters, led by the Los Angeles-based Garment Worker Center, called for Ross to “pay up.” The publicly traded company contracted with factories that were found by the U.S. Labor Department in 2016 to have paid their workers less than the minimum wage, sometimes as low as $4 an hour. And while the Labor Department investigation required the factories to pay workers the wages they were owed, those factories shut down after they received the penalties — what’s known in the industry as “cut and run,” said Garment Worker Center organizer Annie Shaw — and the workers were never paid.

That’s why, in the advocates’ opinion, the only way to get justice for the workers is to hold the corporation accountable. The Garment Worker Center had embarked on a nationwide tour to raise awareness for the campaign, starting at Ross CEO Barbara Rentler’s penthouse in Manhattan. Philly was its second stop.

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Ross said it takes labor compliance seriously and that it requires all its vendors to follow labor law.

“Ross does not own or operate manufacturing operations in Los Angeles or elsewhere,” a corporate spokesperson said. “The claims made by the Garment Worker Center are between the manufacturers’ subcontractors and their workers, not Ross employees.”

Shaw calls this kind of campaign “brand accountability work,” a reference to another reason why this strategy is effective: Lead businesses, such as Ross and American Airlines, have more brand recognition than their contractors and are easier to latch on to as part of a public narrative.

Another recent example of this is the service workers — janitors, shuttle drivers, and cafeteria workers — at such tech giants as Apple, Google, and Facebook who unionized. Facebook cafeteria workers, for example, were employed by a contractor called Flagship Facility Services, but in stories about the workers, it’s Facebook that is front and center.

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.