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The Airport Workers Who Starved Themselves in the Super Bowl’s Shadow

Against the opulence of the NFL's biggest night, workers in Miami went on a hunger strike for living wages.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This year’s Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Florida, was, by all accounts, a successful event. One team’s fans were filled with victorious joy, the other’s with the agony of defeat; the bombastic halftime show with megastars J.Lo and Shakira got tongues wagging; and the NFL raked in the kind of eye-popping profits that are inconceivable to normal people. 

It was, in other words, business as usual for the biggest night in American football, which had fans paying upward of $1,000 per ticket—$214,749 marked 2020’s priciest resale ticket—for the privilege of watching a heavily marketed clash of the titans. And that’s without even factoring in all those inflated prices for food, travel, and accommodations: Flights to Miami  jumped 50 percent for that weekend, and the price for an average hotel room in the city catapulted up to $500 per night

At its gilded core, the Super Bowl is an annual carnival of excess that makes the bread and circuses of Roman antiquity seem quaint in comparison. But this baroque celebration of America’s favorite not entirely lethal combat sport made for a stark contrast with the struggles experienced by Miami locals far outside the orbit of the glittering Hard Rock stadium. And so it came to pass that the airport catering workers of Unite Here Local 355 decided to take a stand against the garish, confetti-strewn backdrop of Super Bowl LIV.

On January 27, 2020, workers represented by the local launched a campaign they dubbed “Fast for Our Families” at Miami International Airport, in order to draw some of the eyes trained on the city toward their plight. Nine workers from Miami as well as New York, San Francisco, and Minneapolis set up an encampment in the airport’s Terminal D departures area. This contingent of strikers pledged to forgo all food for the entirety of Super Bowl week. As Sky Chefs worker Ibis Boggiano Santiesteban said on the second day of the campaign, “We are doing a six-day fast so that American [Airlines] listens to us and knows about our sacrifice to win fair health care and a living wage that we deserve for the work we do for them.”

Most airport workers in Miami-Dade County are covered by a living wage mandate that passed back in 1999 and expanded in 2018 to include workers at various establishments within the airport. But catering workers are an unhappy exception. Through a quirk in its permit with the county, Sky Chefs is bound only by the state minimum wage, which, at $8.46, is $5 below the number set for an hourly wage by the county’s living wage commission. According to Unite Here, the average hourly salary for a Miami Sky Chefs worker is $12.25. 

The fasting workers’ goal was simple: to draw attention to the cruel contrast between the Super Bowl’s privileged excess and the unsustainable wages earned by airline catering workers in Miami. The target of their action, American Airlines, is a major client of their direct employer, catering company LSG Sky Chefs. A 2019 report from Unite Here found that the average wage of Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet workers at kitchens catering to American Airlines flights at the airline’s major airport hubs is more than $2.50 below what those employed by the same contractors would make catering for United Airlines. According to the same report, approximately 70 percent of the airline catering workers in Miami who keep American Airlines planes stocked and customers fed earn less than the living wage set for other airport employees. 

“We welcome all who are flying into Miami for the Super Bowl, but we want them to see our side of Miami, too. We’re fasting for our families because our kids need to be fed, because we need to be able to take them to the doctor,” said Sonia Toledo, who has worked for LSG Sky Chefs at Miami airport for nearly 30 years. “Through this fast, we hope to expose and to urge American Airlines to end poverty in the airline industry.”

The workers—who received check-ups each day from medical professionals—drew a groundswell of support for their efforts. Rafael Ortega, a Gate Gourmet worker at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, came all the way down to Miami to join the fast. “I’m doing this for everybody: for me, for my family,” he said, and the assembled fasters and their supporters seconded Ortega’s sentiment. 

Democratic presidential candidates Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren also spoke out in support of the workers, which helped to further publicize their struggle. Another boost came from their union siblings within the Super Bowl itself. The NFL Players Association’s Executive Director DeMaurice Smith quoted staunch labor ally Dr. Martin Luther King as he offered solidarity to the fasting workers during the lead-up to the game.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that all labor has dignity. Let’s remember, as hundreds of thousands of people descend onto Miami this week, that behind every Super Bowl party and celebration, there are men and women doing the work behind the scenes to be able to feed their families,” he said. “The NFLPA is proud to stand in solidarity with airline catering this week, and shame on American Airlines for not taking action to make sure they are provided a living wage.”

Airline catering workers have shown repeatedly that they’re unafraid to flex their organizing muscle. They’ve also been extremely savvy when it comes to timing their actions for maximum exposure. Local 355 members made headlines over Thanksgiving, for example, with a series of high-profile civil disobedience actions at airports across the United States. They’re clearly committed to doing whatever they can to make themselves heard. Wendi Walsh, the secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 355, stressed the powerful symbolism of the Super Bowl action. 

“The idea behind holding this six-day fast in Miami came because workers knew that during Super Bowl week, hundreds of thousands of passengers would travel to attend a week of high-profile parties and events,” Walsh told The New Republic. “Workers wanted to ensure that visitors saw both sides of Miami and contrasted opulent, expensive parties for the elite with the crisis of poverty and unaffordable health insurance faced every day by airline industry workers.”

Their sacrifice is not without precedent; the hunger strike has long been a potent tool of working-class rebellion. By refusing to feed their bodies, workers wrest their labor from the bosses’ clutches—and in doing so, put their very lives on the line.

In 1968, United Farmworkers President Cesar Chavez stopped eating. For 25 days, he refused food and drink save for water, starving his body in the name of nonviolent resistance. Though media outlets described Chavez’s action as a hunger strike, Chavez viewed it in the broader tradition of spiritual sacrifice within his own Catholic faith, as well as the concept of satyagraha pioneered by Indian independence leader Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. Chavez undertook his fast as a means to rededicate the movement to his own guiding principles. As he said after ending the fast, “The truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice.”

Chavez returned to the spiritual fast again in 1972, to protest a union-busting Arizona law, and for the last time in 1988, at the age of 61, to protest the exposure of farmworkers to harmful pesticides. Subsequent labor activists and rank-and-file workers have utilized it, in the more secularized model of the hunger strike, for their own ends. In 2017, eight graduate student workers at Yale made headlines when they conducted a hunger strike in an effort to force the university to recognize their union, Unite Here Local 33. Incarcerated workers affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee have used hunger strikes for years as they fight for better living conditions within the maw of the prison-industrial complex.

In 2006, 10 janitors employed by the University of Miami went on a monthlong hunger strike. They were supported by the Service Employees International Union, which was trying to unionize the college’s janitorial staff as part of its Justice for Janitors campaign. Six students from the university also joined in the fast. In 2016, a group of women janitors represented by the SEIU-United Service Workers West staged a four-day hunger strike at the California state capitol to urge the governor to sign the Property Services Workers Protection Act, which tackled rampant sexual harassment in the janitorial industry. During that fast, they met with veteran labor activist Dolores Huerta—who co-founded the United Farmworkers with Chavez back in 1962. 

Upon breaking his fast in 1972, Chavez was too weak to speak, but he released a statement that read in part, “What is a few days without food in comparison to the daily pain of our brothers and sisters who do backbreaking work in the fields under inhuman conditions and without hope of ever breaking their cycle of poverty and misery?” The farmworkers he spoke about remain at risk, and that same struggle has now spread into other workplaces—from university campuses to airport terminals—where exploited workers have been wielding the politics of self-deprivation for a righteous cause. 

Irish Republican Bobby Sands, who starved to death in prison in 1981, scribbled from his prison cell during his 66 days of starvation, “It is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom.” Today, the fasting workers of Unite Here have channeled the spirit of Chavez, in the same fundamental effort to dramatize the cruelties of their oppressors in the workplace. And they’re not stopping here.

“America’s labor issues do not end now,” said Ederlinda Fajardo, who has been working for Sky Chefs for over three years. “After our fast, we’re having actions across the country on February 14. We will not stop until we win.”