Miami-Dade County

MIA food workers threaten strike to protest concessionaire

Patricia Pierre, center, who said she makes $8.75 an hour plus tips, stands with other HMSHost workers and union representatives as Unite Here Local 355 threatens a strike at the Miami International Airport.
Patricia Pierre, center, who said she makes $8.75 an hour plus tips, stands with other HMSHost workers and union representatives as Unite Here Local 355 threatens a strike at the Miami International Airport. GETTY IMAGES

A union that represents about half the restaurant workers at Miami International Airport says it’s ready to walk off the job in the days before Christmas, just as MIA enters one of the busiest travel seasons of the year.

The drastic move could leave travelers hungry and thirsty at dozens of MIA’s 78 restaurants — though the management concessionaire, HMSHost, says it has a plan of some sort to keep its 35 eateries open.

But members of the Unite Here Local 355 labor union say they could destabilize operations if they strike to protest contract negotiations with HMSHost. The concessionaire, among other things, wants to charge some employees for health insurance.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t happen,” said Daniel Seymour, who said he makes about $12 an hour as a cashier at the airport’s California Pizza Kitchen. “If they don’t deliver on the 22nd, then we’ll strike.”

A bargaining session between the union and the concessionaire is scheduled for Dec. 22. If no agreement is reached, a strike could follow. Though no date has been set, it’s likely the walk-off would take place right before Christmas, when it would draw the most attention to workers’ demands.

HMSHost said in a statement that the negotiations have been taking place in good faith, most recently on Oct. 2. The company is a subsidiary of Autogrill S.p.A., which bills itself as the world’s largest provider of food and beverage services for travelers and is based in Milan, Italy.

“We expect all of our associates to continue to come to work as scheduled and continue to provide the high level of service and excellent food quality our customers deserve and expect,” said the statement from spokesman Sean Matthews.

The union opposes a management proposal to charge existing workers health-insurance premiums for coverage for their spouses and children. HMSHost would continue to pay employee-only premiums. New workers would be required to pay a premium, even for employee-only coverage.

For existing workers, the premiums would amount to between $20 and $45 a month, Matthews said. New workers would be required to pay between 10 percent and 25 percent of employee-only premiums, depending on coverage.

The concessionaire hasn’t required workers to pay premiums for themselves or their family members in the two decades it has operated at MIA, according to the union. Labor opposes establishing two tiers of health coverage, which they say could give the company an incentive to force out older workers whose benefits would be more expensive.

Premiums would be unaffordable for many employees who make minimum wage, said Nancy Torre, a “crew member” — which she described as a shift supervisor of sorts — at the Jose Cuervo Tequileria airport restaurant. She said she has worked for the company at MIA for 20 years.

“The salary is not enough to cover healthcare,” said Torre, 46.

Matthews said charging some workers premiums is “reasonable.”

“HMSHost has offered a fair contract for our associates at Miami International Airport that includes generous wage increases that are more than the increase in the cost of living, the continuation of free health care for the majority of our associates currently enrolled in health care, and reasonable premium contributions for the remainder,” he said.

Among the eateries staffed by HMSHost are Burger King, Starbucks and Pizza Hut.

Elected Miami-Dade County commissioners have said they expect their subcontractors to treat workers like the government does. Miami-Dade pays for employees’ premiums, unless they want additional coverage, and requires them to pay to cover dependents.

The county-owned airport has two separate contracts with HMSHost, one for nine locations in the North Terminal and another for 26 locations in the Central Terminal, according to Greg Chin, an aviation department spokesman. Only one of the contracts — the one for North Terminal — includes a “labor peace” provision intended to save the county money in case of labor disputes. Should operations be disrupted, the county’s obligations to HMSHost would be temporarily suspended.

There are other concessionaires that run 43 restaurants across MIA, as well as newsstands that sell snacks.

About 1,000 Unite Here workers at San Francisco International Airport held a two-day strike this week in a contract dispute with management — which at SFO is the airport, not HMSHost.

During a news conference staged outside MIA’s Terminal E on Friday, union workers rallied and began signing pledge cards authorizing the potential strike.

Though HMSHost says it has a plan to keep all restaurants open, union organizer Patrick Volcin warned that there could be some disruptions.

“We’re telling all the travelers who are going through the Miami airport at this time: Bring your food. Bring your water,” he said. “Because any day the workers at HMS Host, they can strike.”