Last year, Philadelphia airline food workers got a significant raise.

Starting salaries went from $7.90 an hour to $12.20, the result of a years-long campaign to get the workers covered by Philadelphia’s minimum wage for city workers, contractors, and subcontractors.

Empowered by this gain, the workers — most of them immigrants, many from West Africa — are now ready for another fight.

The majority of the more than 400 Philadelphia-based unionized workers employed by the German company LSG Sky Chefs voted to authorize a strike Thursday, the union Unite Here said. The final count was 317-0. The Philly workers, who primarily service American Airlines flights, are part of a national campaign by Unite Here to get a $15-an-hour minimum wage and less-expensive health care. In Philly, the median wage for the LSG workers is $13.10, according to the union, and 28 percent of workers have company-provided health insurance.

About 11,000 workers around the United States — primarily employed by LSG and Gate Gourmet — are voting this week on whether to authorize a strike. Workers serving airports like Dallas-Fort Worth and Washington Reagan National already have voted in favor of a work stoppage.

Workers from LSG Sky Chefs wait in line to cast their vote for strike authorization.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Workers from LSG Sky Chefs wait in line to cast their vote for strike authorization.

But even if the majority of workers authorize a strike nationwide, which Unite Here expects, a work stoppage would be against federal law. These workers fall under the Railway Labor Act, which aims to ensure that railroads and airlines run smoothly.

So, after the vote, the union plans to appeal to the National Mediation Board, a federal agency currently with a Republican majority, to release the workers from the Railway Labor Act. The union says it does not plan to go on strike.

Still, a strike authorization vote can be powerful. The faculty and staff union of Community College of Philadelphia voted to authorize a strike in March after three years of contract negotiation stalemate and one week later came to a deal on a contract.

The prospect of an airline industry strike arose during last winter’s government shutdown, when some wondered if air delays could force an end to the closure.

An LSG Sky Chefs spokesperson said that “wages, as well as other benefits, including vacations, uniforms, and company-provided meals, as well as health and welfare, are subject to the collective bargaining process between our company and their union representatives,” and that it was “continuing to negotiate in good faith.”

A father of four, Jusufu Fofana sends money back to his wife and children who still live in his native Monrovia, Liberia. The 27-year-old packs airline carts full of soda and Biscoff cookies that flight attendants serve to passengers. He helped get his co-workers out for the strike vote.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
A father of four, Jusufu Fofana sends money back to his wife and children who still live in his native Monrovia, Liberia. The 27-year-old packs airline carts full of soda and Biscoff cookies that flight attendants serve to passengers. He helped get his co-workers out for the strike vote.

On a cool, overcast Thursday, LSG Sky Chefs employees — largely middle-age African and Asian immigrants — came to the parking lot outside their workplace to vote. Some were dressed in heavy coats and winter hats because they work in the refrigerated foods section, while others wore chef’s jackets or light blue workers’ shirts with their names embroidered. Upbeat music played from the speakers as union staffers and members applied blue “I voted yes” temporary tattoos to workers’ hands and asked workers to sign a pledge to join a forthcoming rally.

Some, like Joan N. Freeman, a Liberian immigrant who works in cold foods, preparing fruits like honeydew melon and pineapple for airline meals, came on their day off. Freeman, 46, was a nurse in her native country and hopes to go to school in Philadelphia so she can practice again. For now, she makes $12.50 an hour — “It’s not enough" — and says it’s so cold in the area where she works that sometimes she sneaks into the hot foods section to warm her hands in the oven.

Others, like Jusufu Fofana, voted at the beginning of their 5 a.m. shift, just before the sun rose. Fofana, 27, is a packer, filling carts with cans of soda and Biscoff cookies that flight attendants will serve to passengers. Fofana, who started at $7.35 in 2015 and now makes $13.90, sends money back to his wife and four children, who live in his native Monrovia, Liberia. He had an elbow injury in 2017 and was stunned to find that his health insurance — for which he pays $32 a week — would not cover any of his $1,411 hospital bill (he has a $2,000 deductible).

"I'm ready for the strike," said Joan Freeman, a Liberian immigrant who works in cold foods at LSG Sky Chefs. "I need changes."
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
"I'm ready for the strike," said Joan Freeman, a Liberian immigrant who works in cold foods at LSG Sky Chefs. "I need changes."

Samai Kallon, who was a high school teacher and union leader in his native Kenema, Sierra Leone, also came on his day off, wearing chunky gold rings and a feathered fedora. The 60-something man works in the dish room, overseeing a machine that incinerates garbage.

“Until I see the end,” he said, “I will not move.”

Philadelphia Media Network 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.