The I.N.S. raids airport kitchens.

AuthorMiddlewood, Erin
PositionForced Departure

ONE DAY THIS PAST SPRING at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, immigrant employees of LSG Sky Chefs received a notice from their bosses to show up at a company meeting April 18. The employees were in for a surprise. The meeting was actually with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers posing as Sky Chefs managers. More INS agents showed up and arrested twelve undocumented workers from Mexico.

Sky Chefs happened to be in the midst of negotiations with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union over medical coverage and other issues. Dana Wise of HERE, Local 8, is reluctant to state outright that the Sky Chefs-INS stunt was a union-busting tactic or related to negotiations. But Wise will say it's "highly inappropriate."

"Sky Chefs has taken a very hard line approach in response to workers' efforts to improve their working conditions," Wise says.

The INS raid was part of Operation Tarmac, the federal government's big push to make airports safe after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Reaching beyond metal-detector checkpoints and baggage inspections, the INS has gone into kitchens and other behind-the-scenes areas where many immigrant workers had been making a stable living.

By the end of September, the INS had made 792 arrests resulting in 563 criminal charges, says Nancy Cohen, an agency spokeswoman.

The union maintains that if the objective of Operation Tarmac is to "ensure that travelers have confidence in their safety and security," as an INS official told Congress last June, the emphasis on kitchen workers is misguided.

"None of the food-service workers arrested by the INS had access to the tarmac, and all of the food they make is subject to security checks," Wise says.

"The worst thing they can do is deliver a bad plate of food," quips Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Sky Chefs won't talk specifically about this case. But it did issue a statement. "We are fully cooperating with the INS and all federal agencies as it relates to the security of our facilities," the statement says.

It's not the only company the INS has found to be cooperative. Most of the 2,900 businesses audited by the INS in 100 airports nationwide have assisted the agency, says spokeswoman Cohen.

"The feedback we're getting is quite positive," she says. "They're glad we're there. They're not experts in fraudulent documents."

Rachleff says service workers had made gains in airports over the last...

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