A few hours before Pope Francis arrives in the District of Columbia for the first leg of his U.S. visit, Capitol food service and other government contract workers will walk off their jobs.
The workers will strike Tuesday to renew their call for a $15-an-hour wage and the right to unionize. They plan to proceed to the Capitol and convene across from the East Front with religious leaders and presidential hopeful Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., to pray for lawmakers to heed the pope’s message about economic inequality. On Sept. 10, more than 40 Capitol workers requested an audience with Pope Francis to discuss their struggle to make ends meet while serving wealthy lawmakers. Around 40 workers from the Senate and Capitol Visitor Center also went on strike in July , the third in less than a year.
These workers represent about a third of the workers in the Senate and CVC. Labor organizers say there are roughly 90 Senate workers and 30 in the CVC. On the House side, there are around 125 cafeteria workers and 40 workers with the banquet agency, Capitol Host.
Many of these workers are returning to full-time work after the six-week August recess, a period indicative of the challenges facing the food service workers at the Capitol, who struggle with low wages and uneven work schedules.
James Powell, 27, who works as a chef in the Senate Dining Room said in a recent interview that during August, he used up all of his 80 vacation hours so he could get some money while his work hours were cut.
“That still doesn’t cover [me] in the last week,” Powell said. “By me taking all of my vacation and all of my sick days that actually leaves me no days off for the year”
Powell, who has a 3-year-old son, said he has worked in the Senate cafeterias for around five years and makes just more than $13 an hour. He is one of the workers pushing for a $15-an-hour wage.
“It would make a huge difference,” Powell said of the wage increase. “I wouldn’t have to live from Friday to Friday, check to check. I would have more leeway. There wouldn’t be a struggle.”
Powell was working in the Senate in 2012 when workers opted not to unionize . He said he voted against a union, and he regrets it to this day. Powell said the food contractor, Restaurant Associates, informed workers that a union would only take workers’ money, not actually help them, and he believed it.
“Why didn’t I just vote yes? Why was I brainwashed?” Powell asked. “I think about it every day I go to work.”
The cafeteria workers on the other side of the Capitol are represented by a Unite Here Local 23, and attempted to bring Senate workers into the fold at the beginning of 2014, but were stopped when the Service Employees International Union asserted legal jurisdiction over the Senate workers.
A spokesperson for the SEIU local chapter told CQ Roll Call on Sept. 11 there was no current effort to organize Senate workers.
For the House workers, watching their Senate and CVC counterparts go on strike and detail their struggle in op-eds to no avail is frustrating.
“To me it’s kind of sad,” Jamia Vaden, a 31-year-old cook in the Longworth House Office Building, said in a recent interview. “Because people have family, you have kids, it’s like, you have bills. And to know that somebody is working on Capitol Hill and is homeless, with congressmen and senators, I just, it’s just mind boggling."
“I feel they need to be represented by a union. To me, it doesn’t matter which union it is. I wish it was our union,” said House cook Rickie Toon.
Toon, 60, works in the Rayburn House Office Building and has been working in House cafeterias for more than three decades. He helped organize the House union effort shortly after the House privatized food services in 1986.
Both Toon and Vaden make $17.25 an hour. The wage is is nearly three times Toon’s starting wage. He attributed the increase to unionization, and said working with the union also earned him respect among management.
Toon and Vaden work as union stewards, serving as union representatives during grievance meetings. They described standing up for their fellow workers, and resolving issues in meetings that include managers involved and their supervisors.
On the Senate side of the Capitol, workers with recent grievances have turned to Good Jobs Nation, a coalition of labor groups that has been organizing the recent contract worker strikes. The group has filed a number of unfair labor practice complaints against Restaurant Associates, alleging retaliation against workers who have spoken out or gone on strike.
Powell, who works in the Senate, said having a union would allow him and his Senate workers to have an ally when voicing complaints against management.
“[A union] would make a huge difference because I feel I would actually have a voice in what goes on,” Powell said. “They couldn’t just push us around anymore because we have somebody that’s going to stand up against them.”
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