United Airlines food service workers in Honolulu and four other cities have voted to unionize, according to Unite Here Local 5.

There are about 2,700 food service workers in Honolulu, Newark, Houston, Denver and Cleveland. Many of the workers, especially those in Honolulu and Denver, are Pacific Islanders who rely on flight benefits to be able to afford to fly home to Micronesia. United has a monopoly on flights to Guam and Honolulu.

The results of the election reflect voting across all five cities from Sept. 18 to Oct. 23. According to Unite Here, 72 percent of the workers who voted supported joining the union.

Martha Tipelo holds up a Unite Here Local 5 lanyard.

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

“United has a strong track record of working closely with a number of unions,” United spokesman Frank Benenati wrote in a press release released after the vote results were announced.  “United is committed to treating all of our employees with dignity and respect, and the outcome of this election does not change that commitment.”

The workers called for a union election in January, but United Airlines raised concerns about the union’s tactics. The National Mediation Board investigated and concluded the election could proceed.

Martha Tipelo, an immigrant from Chuuk who has worked for United for 10 years, said, “I feel so excited. It will make a big change for me and my family in the future.”

Honolulu catering workers told Civil Beat that United managers discouraged them from voting to unionize. Tipelo says when she wore her bright red Unite Here Local 5 lanyard to work in January, a staff member in the dispatch office grabbed it and said, “Take this off.”

Workers say the airlines even flew out a United Airlines manager from Chuuk, a state in the Federated States of Micronesia, to Denver and Honolulu to try to persuade them not to unionize.

Tipelo immigrated to Hawaii in 1999 at age 26 and now earns $15 per hour working in the catering division at United.On Tuesday, she said she hopes that being part of the union will mean more money and job security.

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