Micronesian United Airlines workers at DIA lead an increasingly blustery union battle

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AURORA | Soloman Jacklick starts her workday at 2 a.m., preparing meals for first class passengers on United flights. It’s a good job, she said. But she feels second-class compared to United’s other employees.

Jacklick and nearly 570 others who work in the United catering kitchen at Denver International Airport don’t work under a union, but they want to — especially as cost of living in the Denver Metro area doesn’t show any signs of leveling off and their wages aren’t increasing.

She and Nelson Renuk — both immigrants from Micronesia who work in United’s catering department — have become leaders in their community. More than 35 percent of the United employees who work alongside the two are from the neighbroing Pacific islands, 27 percent are from the region known as Micronesia.

Colorado’s population of Pacific islanders is relatively small. They make up less than a half-percent of the state’s population. So the group working at DIA is close, they say.

“A lot of my people work here, too. And we have no voice. So I decided to (push for a union) because at first I wanted to stand on my own and take care of my people, but at the same time I was thinking I’m not strong enough to do it, I don’t have enough support,” Renuk said. “But when the union kicked in, I figured this is the right time.”

UNITE HERE Local 23 has been working with the catering workers for more than six months, guiding and helping the employees organize toward unionization. The union already represents more than 15,000 airline catering workers across the country.

Joel Pally, a research analyst for UNITE HERE, regularly works out of a chain hotel conference room close to the airport.

“Organizing a union is hard. You have to overcome a lot of fear. There’s a lot of coordination that’s involved,” he said from his makeshift office, a large conference table surrounded by union posters that have been hanged around the small room.

The effort to unionize is a joint one. United catering workers from Denver, Houston, Cleveland, Honolulu and Newark are all pushing for unionization. More than 80 percent of non-managerial departments at United are represented by a union, according to Pally. Catering is among the last of the departments that isn’t.

Jacklick said there are some workers at DIA who won’t enter the catering kitchen because it’s not a union kitchen. And the workers often feel like others look down on them because they don’t have a union, even though Renuk said his department often faces conditions just as grueling as the people on the ramp.

“I think in the warehouse the amount of work that we do is the same work that’s done outside,” he said. “We do the same amount of work. But you walk out there and you’ll make $20 an hour. After 14 years I’m making less than $15 an hour.”

During his entire tenure, Renuk has worked in the freezer — a job he said not many people want. Jacklick, who helps ready carts of meals, has been there three years. Both say they like it there, and they don’t want to leave, mostly because of the flight benefit.

United is the only American airline company that flies to Micronesia. If they worked anywhere else, connecting with family back home might not be possible, they said.

“I’m not only responsible for my own family, but I have family back home who is looking up to us. When we have money, we send it,” he said. “My sister was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer two years ago. I had to go pick her up and bring her back here to help her get better. She’s in remission right now.”

Jacklick came to Denver five years ago to help her sister take care of her family. When she started working for United, Jacklick thought it was a good opportunity that would allow her parents visit more often. A ticket to the U.S. can cost more than $2,000.

But now, the flight benefit is one of the few perks keeping the immigrants working for United. Renuk said employees have health insurance, but many of his co-workers opt out of the coverage because it’s too expensive with their wages.

Renuk works two jobs to keep his family afloat. He has for 10 years.

“Colorado was so cheap. I used to pay $425 for one bedroom,” Renuk said. “The money we get used to be OK, having another job was fine. But right now there’s just no way I’m going to make it with $14 an hour. Right now I pay $1,500 for my apartment.”

Renuk said he’s finally reached seniority in his department, but he knows he’s maxed out on his wage. His two jobs means he can’t watch his two kids, now teenageers, play sports. He’s making a lot of other sacrifices, too. Renuk said he doesn’t let his family go to the grocery store on an empty stomach. That prevents them from buying anything more than necessities. He said he’s constantly reminding his family to turn off lights and conserve water to lower expenses, too.

Beyond wages, Jacklick said there are other reasons the workers need a union. She’s seen two fellow employees faint on the job. Earlier this year, Jacklick said even with a doctor’s note following an appendicitis she was told she had to lift 50-pound boxes.

The group filed for a union election in January and are still waiting to hear back from the National Mediation Board, Pally said. He added that it seems United is trying to stall the process by challenging the petition, which gained support from the majority of workers, by raising questions of whether the workers even knew what they were signing.

More than 2,000 United catering workers across the country signed the petition, according to the Chicago Business Journal.

Jacklick and Reluk say they’ve experienced intimidation.

“They (magagement) say we’re going to get fired,” Jacklick said. “ They say they’re going to take our flight benefit, which is our main thing because we have 40 percent islanders and we travel far, far away.”

They recalled anti-union fliers plastered in the warehouse — translated into several languages. The workers said no other United documents, including safety materials, have been translated into their native languages.

“They sent one of the high-ranking United managers from my country. They flew him here just to go to the kitchen and talk to us about how the union is not a good idea,” Renuk said. “The problem with that is that he has no idea.”

A United spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on those allegations, but provided a statement, saying “United Airlines respects our employees’ rights to decide whether labor union representation is likely to serve the best interests of our employees and their families, and we respect all of our employees regardless of whether they choose to be represented by labor unions or not.”

Democratic lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are the most recent to support the catering workers.

“We are aware of allegations that United Airlines managers have questioned, intimidated, and retaliated against these catering workers as they have engaged in protected union activities at the workplace,” the committee members wrote in a letter to United CEO Oscar Munoz. “We call on you to examine these allegations and take the necessary steps to stop them.”

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Democratic members also authored a letter last month. It, too, referenced acts of intimidation.

Renuk, Jacklick and others say they’re now at the mercy of decision makers at the mediation board, and that all they can do is wait for an election, undaunted for now.