Victoria Stahl Fought to Improve Wages at Sky Harbor

Building a labor movement in Phoenix is no easy task. Over the past year, though, the labor movement in Phoenix has seen some major wins.

Last fall, airport workers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport went on a 10-day strike, scoring a new contract after years of bargaining. In June, a former budtender at Curaleaf’s dispensary in Gilbert won her job back after arguing in court that the cannabis giant fired her for organizing. And employees at Starbucks locations across the Valley joined unions — becoming some of the first unions at the coffeehouse chain in the country.

To commemorate Labor Day, Phoenix New Times spoke with four union leaders and rank-and-file workers — from teachers to dispensary workers — about the victories and struggles of the past year, and the labor movement in Arizona.

 Victoria Stahl was one of the Sky Harbor concession workers who went on strike in November 2021. After 10 days, Stahl and her fellow workers returned to the bargaining table, and won big.

At sunrise on November 22, 2021, just days before Thanksgiving, workers at Sky Harbor went on strike. They greeted the early-morning crowd with beating drums and bullhorns. One of the workers on the picket line was Victoria Stahl, a 25-year-old barista at a Starbucks inside the airport.

Though Sky Harbor falls under the jurisdiction of the city of Phoenix, the airport contracts with HMS Host to operate many of its restaurants, cafes, and fast food outlets. Last year, understaffing ravaged the company. Some HMS Host employees were forced to work mandatory 12-hour shifts. “I do not have time to be a person,” HMS host worker Matthew Vargas told New Times in September 2021.

Instead of shuttering stores, employees claimed at that time, the company kept as many stores open as possible, stretching its workforce thin.

Stahl joined HMS Host in January 2021. She started at $12.95 an hour. “Very, very quickly I realized something wasn’t right and something needed to be done,” she told New Times.

Stahl was frustrated with the company’s lack of attention to its employees. Workers were constantly rotated through different stores without any extra compensation. A broken espresso machine that blasted hot steam at employees wasn’t repaired. (When New Times asked about these working conditions in September 2021, HMS Host said it was “proud to have opened almost all of our restaurants and returned many of our valued associates to work.”)

Stahl, 25, was born and raised in Maryvale. “I’m a very, very proud West Side girl,” she said. Before joining HMS Host, she had done some work in politics, registering voters and helping with the campaign of Phoenix City Councilwoman Betty Guardado.

When she started at Sky Harbor, Stahl learned that the HMS Host workers’ union — Unite Here! Local 11 — had been in contract negotiations for more than three years. “We hadn’t had raises since the pandemic started. People had been laid off. People had lost health insurance,” Stahl said.

Stahl joined the union’s negotiating committee. Unite Here! was pushing for the usual asks of a contract: higher wages and cheaper health insurance. But HMS Host, even as travel began to return to pre-pandemic levels, was stonewalling.

The situation boiled over in November 2021. Stahl remembers the energy of the picket line on the first day of the walkout. The strike lasted for 10 days, drawing headlines across Arizona and fueling a subsequent strike by HMS Host workers in Los Angeles.

“We knew what we were standing up for was deserved four years ago and was four years too late,” Stahl said. That, she added, is “what kept the fire going.”

The strike continued day and night outside the airport through the busy Thanksgiving weekend. Stahl spent her days marching, chanting, and speaking to media.

When the workers eventually returned to the negotiating table, things were “tense,” Stahl recalled. But ultimately, they scored a victory. “[HMS Host managers] magically were able to reach into their back pocket and find the money for the things we’d been asking for,” Stahl said. The new contract was ratified just weeks later.

Now, baristas with HMS Host start at $15.50 an hour. The cost of health insurance went down. The union won a legal fund for its workers.

Stahl is currently on leave from her HMS Host job and working as an organizer with Unite Here! She still keeps a close eye on working conditions at Sky Harbor.

“It’s not perfect, by any means,” Stahl said. “We still face issues. There are still things that come up. But more people have found their voice.” The solidarity she had seen from the city, she said, taught her that Phoenix was, at its heart, a “union town.”

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