Dennis Ferry, a whistleblower who worked for an Alaska Airlines subsidiary, had planned a July 4 protest at San Francisco International Airport calling for better work conditions. But, on Friday, he was fired. Other workers fear that if they protest, they could be next.
At McGee Air Services, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, ramp workers like Ferry load and unload planes while fleet workers clean them. Working on the ramp is a high-stakes job, one where if luggage or cargo are loaded improperly, it could topple a plane, according to a Federal Aviation Administration handbook and multiple ramp workers interviewed.
“The first thing they drill into our head is that if we fuck up, we make a mistake, an entire plane full of people very well may just fall out of the sky upon takeoff, and everyone will die,” Ferry said. “And they pay us the absolute bare minimum with that kind of stress.”
The 35-year-old Oakland resident wrote about his experiences working at the subsidiary in a 23,000-word post on a website his friend helped him create, published on Tuesday and signed as Z. On Thursday, he confirmed that he was the author.
The article alleges that McGee Air Services gives Alaska Airlines’ ramp and fleet workers at the San Francisco airport the bare minimum, and their union, International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, AFL-CIO, Local 142, does little to stand up for them.
“No human being should spend their lives taking the risks we take every day, risking our lives, our health, our backs, our hearing, for what we are given,” Ferry wrote in his article. “Wages that force our coworkers to live in cars. Wages that force people to choose whether to eat or have gas money.”
He was suspended pending an investigation on June 27, and the company fired him for alleged misconduct on Friday. He provided Mission Local the notices of suspension and termination.
In response to press inquiries, the marketing and public relations company for McGee Air Services stated it provides competitive pay and benefits, bonuses and travel privileges and works closely with the union to prioritize employee needs.
“We respect the right of Mr. Ferry to voice his opinion,” the company added.
Inquiries sent to the union were not returned at press time.
Because the union contract prohibits striking, Ferry recommended in the post that, at 2 p.m. on July 4, workers instead offer to work on an assignment unrelated to Alaska Airlines aircraft, such as cleaning, sorting in the bag room or checking equipment.
Ferry hopes that members of the public will show support by boycotting or protesting the airline, at 12 p.m. on July 4, at Alaska Airlines Terminal 2.
His demands include $5 hazard pay and similar benefits to employees at Alaska Airlines, who have the same union but a different contract, he said. Those employees, including those working at the counter, get life insurance and priority on flights, he added.
Ferry said that prior to his suspension, most of his colleagues seemed ready to participate.
Several interviewees said support for the demands were unanimous among workers, but the fear of retaliation runs high, and they don’t know how many ramp and fleet workers may participate. Two said they feared losing their jobs and being unable to support their families.
“If we wouldn’t lose our job, I’m sure everyone would walk out,” said a coworker who asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation.
Added another, the day before Ferry was fired, “They’re really out to get Dennis.”
Ramp workers interviewed reported feeling underappreciated and expendable by management as well as underrepresented by their union.
Back and shoulder injuries are common, they said. Equipment red-tagged as inoperable is rarely fixed, multiple workers said, and the wand-like orange light sticks used to guide airplanes have been short in supply.
“Recently I have had several nights where I am standing in the dark and holding a stick while hoping I don’t get run over by a truck or a plane because they can’t actually see me. Because they are expecting a glowing orange light stick,” Ferry wrote in his article.
He added that ground vehicles without working headlights or emergency breaks haven’t been fixed, which other ramp workers confirmed. Ferry said two vehicles hadn’t been fixed after he tagged them five times for having dysfunctional emergency brakes.
Employees called their training ineffective, and said that new workers usually learn on the job.
“Trainers are ass,” one employee said. “When new people come and get out of [training], they basically just don’t know anything. I’m like, ‘What did trainers teach you?’ The trainers expect you to teach them — not my job.”
Ramp workers said they’re paid $19.05, the minimum wage for employees at San Francisco International Airport. They said they have fewer benefits than employees hired directly by Alaska Airlines.
Aspiring employees are drawn to the job by the free flights, but workers say flights are hard to score. Even if they fly somewhere, it’s common to have requests for flight returns declined, meaning they’ll have to pay for the trip back.
The union contract also prevents them from going on strike, a stipulation from the Railroad Labor Act of 1926. In an email obtained by Mission Local, the union president said the contract is amendable every seven years but doesn’t expire.
In May, Ferry asked his coworkers to sign a petition that read, “We are not expendable.” Of some 200 workers, around 70 percent signed, he said.
“Ferry said, ‘You guys deserve better because you’re out there breaking your back every day lifting these heavy bags, and they show no type of appreciation,’” one ramp worker said, recalling how Ferry would explain the message to his coworkers before they signed.
After many appeals to the company and the union for better conditions to no avail, Ferry said, he published his story.
Hired in October 2019, Ferry would at times have to pick between whether to spend on food or his commute, he wrote. He was laid off in April 2020 and lost his health insurance.
Ferry saved more than he could previously through unemployment benefits, but McGee Air Services asked him to return on Aug. 1, and he couldn’t decline, lest he risk losing his unemployment benefits.
“… when people realize that a company pays the bare minimum to the people who have the responsibility of making sure planes don’t crash I don’t think they will be happy,” he wrote in the article. “When they see that a company doesn’t have any respect for the lives of the people keeping their passengers safe they are going to realize that Alaska Airlines doesn’t value the lives of customers either.”
He added, “No one wants to fly with an airline whose motto could be, ‘They don’t pay me enough to care.’”
Ferry still has hopes the protest and boycott will come to fruition. Beyond that, the article calls itself a stand against other corporations, one where Ferry hopes others can use the same pseudonym, Z, to protest poor work conditions across corporations.
The article has been updated with a response from the marketing and public relations company for McGee Air Services.