The Senate's food service vendor is pushing back against lawmakers' criticism of the organization's approach to worker wages and conditions, an embarrassing situation that has led to boycotts of cafeterias, including by Senate leaders.
In a Nov. 13 letter to the CEO of Restaurant Associates' parent company, Compass Group, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and the majority of the Senate Democratic Caucus, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, expressed concern about workers' wages and their ability to unionize. The senators also noted that the National Labor Relations Board found merit in allegations of retaliation against workers who went on strike. The company is now seeking to refute those claims. "Wherever we operate, we comply with labor laws and would not tolerate intimidation or coercive tactics by our managers," Restaurant Associates CEO Dick Cattani wrote in a Tuesday letter to Sanders, obtained by CQ Roll Call.
"We do not believe there has been any attempt to intimidate workers in the Senate Dining Room and disagree with your characterization of the recent inquiry by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board," Cattani wrote.
Cattani referred Sanders to an Oct. 30 NLRB ruling to dismiss a charge that the company violated U.S. labor laws and that a manager interrogated employees about organized activities and told employees they would lose money if they joined a union, among other violations.
According to the NLRB notice obtained by CQ Roll Call, the labor board said there was not enough evidence to prove the manager in question was technically a supervisor under the law, and that evidence did not support the claims.
"[The] evidence failed to establish the Employer mocked, humiliated or otherwise coerced employees regarding their protected-concerted activities or charges they filed with the National Labor Relations Board," read the notice. "Rather, the evidence revealed that the Employer gave employees assurances that they were free to engage in protected-concerted activities free from Employer interference."
The NLRB did find merit in a previous claim of retaliation against workers who went on strike. Good Jobs Nation, the coalition of groups that filed the charge on behalf of workers, reached a settlement with Restaurant Associates on the issue.
On Tuesday, the coalition that has been organizing worker strikes over the past year filed another unfair labor practice charge against the company.
The charge claimed that management has been "surveilling employees' protected activities during their lunch breaks and bathroom breaks." The charge also alleged that one employee was retaliated against for participating in recent strikes, and was disciplined twice for the same infraction, which is not in line with the company's disciplinary policy.
Aside from the retaliation allegations, Cattani also responded to the senators' push to allow workers to unionize in a similar fashion that Restaurant Associates workers in the Smithsonian museums were able to unionize: through a majority of workers signing union authorization cards.
"The workers in the Senate Dining Room have every right to organize if they so choose," Cattani responded. "An organizing effort by the Service Employees International Union three years ago was rejected by 68 percent of those voting."
"If the SEIU believes it has the necessary support to organize in the Senate Dining Room," he continued, "we believe the best course would be to follow the usual procedure of asking the NLRB to hold an election."
Though Senate workers rejected a union in 2012, some organizers claimed management pressured workers to vote against a union.
James Powell, a Senate food worker who voted against the union in 2012, recently told CQ Roll Call he regretted his vote . He claimed that at the time, Restaurant Associates said a union would take away his money, which prompted him to vote "no."
A jurisdictional dispute between SEIU and Unite Here , which represents House food service workers, halted the effort to unionize Senate workers in 2014.
But over the past year , workers in the Senate and the Capitol Visitor Center have renewed their calls for higher wages and a union. Reports of workers in poverty or living on the streets, the senators wrote, "attracted negative publicity" to the company and the Senate. But Cattani sought to quell their concerns.
Such concerns have prompted Senate staffers to stage brown-bag sit-in protests in the Dirksen cafeteria. Their demonstrations have attracted the support of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3-ranking Senate Democrat, who stopped by the cafeteria to show solidarity.
Cattani told lawmakers the company isn't unfriendly to workers.
"I can assure you that Restaurant Associates is committed to adhering to the stated policies and values of our company," Cattani wrote. "We believe in the dignity of workers — all workers."
That wasn't enough for some workers, though, including those under the Restaurant Associates umbrella in the nearby Capitol Visitor Center.
“Despite what the CEO says, management continues to aggressively retaliate against workers,” said CVC cashier Kellie Duckett, “After we went on strike, our manager cut our hours and followed us around the next day. Not only that, the manager took me in her office and threatened my job. She told me to think about how I would take care of my children if I lost this job.”