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Phoenix Sky Harbor Workers Step Back from the Picket Line

Sky Harbor hospitality workers have been on strike since before Thanksgiving.
Sky Harbor hospitality workers have been on strike since before Thanksgiving. Katya Schwenk
After ten days on strike, workers at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport are returning to their jobs starting Thursday.

Unionized employees of about a dozen retail locations across the airport from Starbucks to Blanco Tacos & Tequila went on strike just before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Unite Here Local 11 has been negotiating with HMS Host since 2017 and the company claims the union walked away from the bargaining table in 2018.

HMS Host employs 469 workers at Sky Harbor and 49 participated in the strike last week. The company claims it increased wages by 16 percent and lowered healthcare costs despite not having a contract.

Unite Here recently pushed for an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into systematic racial disparities in hiring, promotion, and compensation for employees of the Phoenix airport concessionaire HMS Host. The company claims the reason people of color earn less is because of seniority status and that the union enshrined such racial disparity when it signed a collective bargaining agreement where wages depended on tenure.

Black restaurant workers at HMS Host-operated airports earn about $18,973 each year including tips, compared to $28,513 for white workers, according to a union survey in 2019. After the coronavirus pandemic began, annual wages plummeted to $16,215 for white workers and even less for people of color, according to the union.

HMS Host claims its proposal offers jobs upward of $15 an hour which includes health insurance which covers 90 percent of employee costs for $13 each week.

Workers often trek to Mexico for medical care because it's cheaper than the company's healthcare plan, union members claim.

The union is pushing for the Phoenix workers to have a pension fund instead of a 401K plan but the company counters that workers could leave without retirement benefits if they opt for a pension and quit before they are vested. 

"HMSHost believes the strike is not about wages and benefits but rather Unite Here Local 11’s demand that the company transition from a 401K plan that benefits all workers in favor of the out of state Los Angeles Hotel Restaurant Retirement Fund that benefits far fewer employees," according to a company statement. 
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Kristen Mosbrucker is a journalist who hails from the Northeast but has spent much of her career over the past decade across the South. She has interviewed everyone from business executives to homeless folks. She's covered business on the Texas-Mexico border in deep South Texas for the McAllen Monitor, technology and the defense industry in San Antonio for American City Business Journals, and the petrochemical industry in Louisiana for The Advocate newspaper. Early in her career, she spearheaded hyperlocal community news coverage for an NPR member station in Philadelphia.