United Airlines Battles With Kitchen Workers Over Union Representation

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Unlike its competitors, United Continental Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL) employs many of its own kitchen staff to prepare in-flight meals. The company operates five kitchens in the United States that employ about 2,700 United workers, who are now seeking union representation.

Labor organization Unite Here filed a petition for unionization in January supported by three-quarters of the kitchen workers. Usually, such a petition would lead to an election supervised by the federal National Mediation Board (NMB).

According to Bloomberg News, United filed a complaint with the NMB alleging fraud and misrepresentation by Unite Here and, unusually, the NMB determined that it would delay a union election indefinitely while the board investigated United’s complaint.

Several members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to the NMB last week seeking an explanation for the board’s decision to delay the unionization vote:

In agreeing to the carrier’s (United Airlines) spurious request to initiate a lengthy investigation before conducting an election rather than after, and thus substantially delaying the election process, the NMB has sharply departed from the standard in its Representation Manual and prior precedents requiring a showing of extraordinary circumstances supported by substantial evidence.

The Chicago Business Journal noted that the letter “expressed concern” that the NMB is now claiming it does not have the resources to investigate the claims promptly.

Bloomberg also reported that Unite Here filed a complaint Thursday with the NMB alleging that United has illegally obstructed union organizing efforts and subjected pro-union workers to surveillance, harassment and retaliation. The airline calls the allegations “baseless” and says it “respects our employees’ rights to decide whether they want to be represented by a union.’

For its part, United has installed TV screens in its kitchens that broadcast messages telling workers why they don’t want to be represented by a union. The messages include warnings that unionization means union dues, the potential loss of benefits like discounted flights, along with the difficulty of getting rid of the union if workers change their minds.

All of United’s frontline employees — pilots, cabin crew, baggage handlers and mechanics — except kitchen staff are represented by unions. The kitchen workers initially sought union representation to address issues such as a restrictive policy on attendance, low pay and job protections. United’s other unions support the unionization effort.

United Continental’s share price has fallen by about 16% in the past year and shareholders want CEO Oscar Munoz and his management team to close the profit gap between the company and its competitors. United also finished last in a new J.D. Power survey on airline customer satisfaction. Higher profits, higher union wages and improving customer satisfaction, while not mutually exclusive, are difficult to achieve at the same time.

Oh, and did we mention rising fuel costs and no way to raise fares and remain competitive?