Union-bashing Willamette Week tramples the facts in airport story

By Don McIntosh

“Organized labor wants to push out local restaurants and raise prices at Portland International Airport.” That’s word-for-word what Willamette Week reported in its Oct. 18 issue. Only problem? It’s not true, says the union organizer involved, Stefan Moritz, of UNITE HERE Local 8.

UNITE HERE Local 8 represents about 150 restaurant and retail workers at the Portland airport.

In the article, reporter Nigel Jaquiss asserts that UNITE HERE wants the airport to abandon “street pricing,” and award all its concession contracts to one or two operators — to make it simpler for workers to unionize. But the article provides no evidence that those are the union’s positions, and Moritz, who was quoted in the article, says the union has never said either of those things.

“If you look at the work we do in other airports, we work with small businesses all over the place,” Moritz told the Labor Press. “In San Francisco, our union represents workers at many small businesses that have good union contracts, while the small businesses are highly successful.”

As for street pricing — the popular-with-travelers rule that restaurants can’t charge more at the Portland airport than at their other locations — Moritz says the union hasn’t called for an end to that either.

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain has criticized street pricing, however. Chamberlain, one of two labor voices on the nine-member Port of Portland Commission, says the street pricing rule pinches business profit margins and makes it that much harder for them to pay living wages and benefits to their workers. It’s not like the airport applies “street pricing” to the rents it charges concession contractors.

But details like that would get in the way of Jaquiss’ union-bashing narrative, in which the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist relies on lazy clichés about unions. “Unite Here” is described as a “powerful” “New York based” union, “one of the nation’s largest,” that has shown an ability to “dictate terms” at other West Coast airports.

Actually, UNITE HERE (spelled all-caps because it’s an acronym), is only America’s 20th largest union. Its Local 8 is based in Seattle. And far from dictating terms, it took 10 years, a union-community coalition, and a hard-fought ballot measure to get $15 an hour and worker protections at SeaTac.

As for the local restaurants the article celebrates? Some of the concession businesses at PDX are locally owned. But most, as detailed below, are in fact local “brand concepts” that are operated by giant out-of-town companies.


“Local” restaurants at the Portland Airport

Laurelwood Pub and Kenny and Zuke’s (operated by SSP America, a division of SSP Group, a British multinational that operates branded catering and retail at over 125 airports worldwide)

Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Peet’s Coffee, and Potbelly Sandwiches (operated by Texas-based LaTrelle Inc., which also runs airport Wendy’s and Subway franchises)

Henry’s Tavern (operated by Restaurants Unlimited, which is owned by Sun Capital Partners, a global private equity outfit)

Rogue Ales Public House, Rose’s Restaurant and Bakery, and Tamale Boy (operated all-union by HMS Host, a subsidiary of Italy-based Autogrill S.p.A. – the world’s largest airport concessions company)

Tom Chamberlain, second from the left at this February 2015 meeting of the Port of Portland, is used to being odd man out on a Port Commission that — despite years of union pressure — has done little to raise standards for hundreds of low-wage, mostly minority airport workers.

2 Comments on Union-bashing Willamette Week tramples the facts in airport story

  1. Thank you SO much for clearing this up with verifiable facts! I read the Willamette Week (WW) article and was shocked that WW’s editor felt that this piece somehow passed as investigate journalism and was subsequently published. While reading the WW article I found several incongruencies that arroused my suspicions and was leery of its anti-labor tone. With an overabundance of anti-union sentiment in the current administration of our federal government’s executive branch, I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to call out the one-sided views expressed in the WW article, so thanks again for doing so.

  2. Continued, part 2
    I am a frequent Portland International Airport (PDX) user and a now 12+ year member of and volunteer with The Transport Workers Union Local 556, the Union of Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants.

    Southwest Airlines has and continues to demonstrate how a business enterprise can achieve unprecedented success by working with, instead of against its organized labor groups. This success has been measured in financial results, industry leading labor contracts, Customer satisfaction, and product and brand value.

    PDX has, for years, demonstrated its appeal to travelers by its numerous awards. The concession businesses and the workers that operate them are a large part of that equation for success. I just don’t see how PDX airport workers organizing to improve quality of life, work rule, and compensation levels will hinder PDX from continuing its successful trajectory. This includes maintaining its street pricing. In fact, if the principles that Southwest employs are identified and replicated, it would stand to reason that organized airport workers at PDX would enhance PDX’s ability to remain successful by every measurement.

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