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Capitol Food Workers Escalate Protests in Senate

Capitol workers gather before heading to Cruz's office. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Dozens of Capitol food workers went on strike Tuesday, demanding to negotiate higher wages with their management and taking their message to other Senate workspace, specifically calling on Sen. Ted Cruz, who sits on the committee that oversees their contract, to support their push for better pay and union representation.  

The workers flooded the Texas Republican's office, and the hallway outside, to award Cruz the "Golden Grinch" award, and bring attention to their effort for a $15 an hour wage and collective bargaining rights.

“Cruz is my guy," said a labor organizer dressed in a grinch costume. "He says, 'I’m for the American dream,' but we have workers right here serving you, sir, that are living an American nightmare."

Over the past year, an increasing number of food service workers in the Senate and Capitol Visitor Center, who are employees of the contractor Restaurant Associates, have been walking off their jobs. The Architect of the Capitol is in the process of renegotiating Restaurant Associates' contract with the Senate.

An aide with the Senate Rules and Administrative Committee, which has jurisdiction over the food service contract, told Roll Call Monday that there will likely be progress on the contract either this week or next week.

Organizers with a coalition of groups known as Good Jobs Nation organized Tuesday's strike to call attention to the negotiations, and pointed out that workers have not been a part of the contract discussions. Since Cruz sits on the Rules Committee, and is running for president, workers decided to target his office and urge him to remember them while he works in the Senate and on the campaign trail.  

Cruz spokesman Phil Novack listened while workers made their case, and said a member of his staff would be willing to sit down with Senate workers to discuss the issue. "Thank you very much for coming in and sharing your views with us," Novack told the group.  

After the "grinch" and others left Cruz's office in the Russell Senate Office Building, a few faith leaders who were on hand to stand in solidarity with the workers joined hands with each other and with Novack.  

Rev. Leslie Copeland Tune of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative led the prayer, and said afterward that she prayed for Novack and Cruz. She asked "that their hearts would be pricked. That they would remember these workers when they sat down at their own tables with plenty while these workers are struggling to have enough to eat."  

The faith leaders and the workers caused a stir in the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria earlier Tuesday afternoon before they headed to Cruz's office. The leaders insisted on delivering a letter to the Restaurant Associates manager to call for a resolution for the strikes. Workers crowded the cafeteria and chanted, "No justice, no peace," drawing more than a dozen Capitol Police officers to the area.  

Capitol Police officers warned organizers there would be arrests if the chanting and crowding did not cease, since the workers were illegally demonstrating. The workers then dispersed, and the faith leaders were eventually able to deliver their letter, addressed to Richard Cousins, the CEO of Restaurant Associates' parent company, Compass Group. They offered to mediate disagreements between workers and management.  

"The U.S. Capitol is a symbol of inclusion where everyone can have their voices heard," the faith leaders wrote. "We hope you will do everything possible to make this symbol real for America's low-wage workers."  

The workers who have been striking will also get a boost from Hollywood filmmaker Michael Moore Tuesday night.  

Moore will screen his latest film, "Where to Invade Next ," at the Capitol Visitor Center and will give his first-ever "Hammer and Chisel" award to Bertrand Olotara, a Senate worker who wrote about his experience  having to rely on food stamps in an op-ed for the Guardian.  

In addition to a celebrity endorsement, the push for higher wages and union representation for Senate workers has also garnered support from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who recently commented on social media that a worker he remembered from his time in the Senate should get a raise. Top Senate Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have also endorsed the effort. Senate staff have also been organizing brown bag lunch boycotts to show their support for the workers.  

Related: Biden Reunites with Senate Worker, Calls for a Raise