United Airlines catering workers in Honolulu and four other cities will vote on whether to unionize this month after gaining federal approval to hold the election.

The National Mediation Board ruled Aug. 22 that the election could proceed. United Airlines sought to block it after raising questions about whether the union had wrongly pressured workers to sign cards in support of organizing.

The airlines raised concerns about whether workers — most of whom are immigrants — understood the cards they signed calling for a union vote. In a filing with the National Mediation Board, United questioned whether workers feared they would lose their jobs if they refused to support the union.

The board investigated the allegations and concluded that the workers understood what they were doing.

Imaculata Afituk hands out leaflets asking the public for support for United Airlines food workers to unionize at Daniel Inouye International Airport, United curbside area.
Imaculata Afituk hands out leaflets asking the public to support United Airlines catering workers’ effort to unionize at the Honolulu International Airport earlier this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Almost universally, employees either signed a card out of a desire to support the (union’s) campaign or they declined to sign a card without feeling pressured,” the ruling says.

The election will run from Sept. 18 to Oct. 23 in Honolulu, Denver, Cleveland, Houston and Newark. More than 2,000 out of about 2,700 workers filed a petition calling for a vote to unionize in January.

Work in the catering department ranges from food and drink preparation for in-flight meals to cleaning and sanitizing meal carts in between flights. Employees describe the work as fast-paced and physically exhausting and told Civil Beat that top employees in Honolulu max out their pay at $15 per hour.

This video from United Airlines gives a glimpse into the work that catering employees do.


A spokesman for United Airlines said that the company respects employees’ right to unionize.

“We respect our employees’ rights to decide whether they want to be represented by a union and will follow the voting process, timeline and laws as outlined by The National Mediation Board and Railway Labor Act,” the company said in a statement.

In Honolulu, many of the catering workers are immigrants from Micronesia who rely on flight benefits to afford to visit family at home.

Ino Otto, who has worked in the United catering department in Honolulu for the past five years and is originally from Chuuk, said she and her coworkers are excited about the possibility of unionizing.

“We feel strong now,” she said. “I cannot wait for the vote. United Airlines is a rich company, so they should pay us enough to live in Hawaii and take care of our families.”

The employees would be joining UNITE HERE, which represents workers throughout the U.S. and Canada in the hotel, gaming, food service, airport, textile, manufacturing, distribution, laundry and transportation industries.

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