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Capitol Workers Hope Pope Will Help Movement

Sanders addressed the striking workers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Two blocks from the Capitol, hundreds of federal contract workers, including 60 Capitol workers, gathered Tuesday to welcome Pope Francis to the United States and pray his presence would push lawmakers to raise their wages and allow for union representation.  

“Brothers and sisters, we are here to welcome the pope," said Joseph Geevaraghese, deputy director of the Change to Win campaign. "We want to welcome him to the Capitol, which is also the capital of income inequality." The workers are hoping the pope’s emphasis on economic inequality will strike a chord with members of Congress. Tuesday was the fourth time food service workers in the Senate and Capitol Visitor Center have gone on strike pushing for $15 an hour wages and union representation. The movement got a boost, and a sizable press corps covering the service, from presidential hopeful Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who spoke to the group packed into the Lutheran Church of the Reformation.  

“Today as we welcome Pope Francis to the Untied States, to the U.S. Capitol, I hope that every member of Congress and the president will heed his call for social and economic justice,” Sanders said. “There is no justice when millions of people across our country, including people working in the United States Senate, are working for wages that are too little to take care of their kids, to take care of their family. That’s wrong. That has got to change.”  

Despite the excitement surrounding the pope's congressional address Thursday, it remains unclear whether the pontiff will be able to influence policy. A poll by The Economist/YouGov poll revealed most Americans do not believe Pope Francis can spur legislative action on climate change and immigration. And, since contract negotiations are underway with the Capitol food service vendor, Restaurant Associates, it is not clear whether Pope Francis’ message will affect that outcome either.  

“It’s highly unlikely we’ll let the pope negotiate the contract,” Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said when asked about the workers’ hope the pontiff would help their cause. “But I’m not negotiating the contract either,” Blunt added, seemingly referring to the fact that the Architect of the Capitol is the head negotiator, “but we will, and there are issues to be addressed, and I hope that a number of them are.”  

Sanders later told CQ Roll Call he believes the pope has had a sizable impact on the global and national discourse by raising issues such as economic inequality. The independent senator implied the pope’s presence could boost the Capitol workers’ fight.  

“I think the call for justice tells us that people working in the United States government should not be paid horrendously low wages,” Sanders said. “So I think his presence here is very positive.”  

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who organized a letter signed by every Senate Democrat, including Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that called for higher wages for Senate workers, said he hoped Pope Francis’ address would encourage some necessary reflection.  

“These are people who are working every bit as hard as we do and have so little to show for it. It’s a travesty, it’s a moral travesty, that we don’t look out for them better than we do,” Brown said. When asked if the pope could help the movement, he added, “People during and after his speech, I assume, will engage in some introspection, which is good for all of us, no matter where we sit.”  

Senators were heading in for their first votes of the day Tuesday as 60 Capitol workers, the highest number to date, went on strike, and joined around 750 striking government contract workers at the Capitol Hill church. The workers heard from Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and other religious leaders, and some Capitol workers also addressed the crowd.  

Sontia Bailey, a Senate cashier who recently wrote about her experience in an op-ed in The Guardian , described how she suffered a miscarriage while working two jobs to make ends meet.  

“We really need $15 and a union. There’s no way possible, going into the Capitol, leaving one uniform and then we [put on] another uniform, just trying to make it to punch another clock,” said Bailey. “And with the pope coming, hopefully his message speaks to everyone. And they need to know and understand that working in the Capitol is not peaches and cream. We’re working for pennies, nickels and quarters and dimes.”  

Some of Bailey’s colleagues donned white robes with blue shirts saying “STRIKE” draped over the robes, and carried signs depicting “prophets of justice,” including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi.  

Those carrying the signs led the workers out of the church, and they marched east toward the Capitol, with one worker chanting into a megaphone, "The pope is our hope." The workers were originally going to gather in front of the Supreme Court, since they did not have a demonstration permit for the Capitol, but they instead walked onto the Capitol grounds, stopping on the East Front plaza.  

Although they did not have a permit, the Capitol Police allowed the workers to briefly kneel on the East Front, with their hands outstretched toward the Capitol Dome, and pray.