Although executive actions don’t necessarily affect legislative branch contracts, a handful of contract workers walked off their food-services jobs in the Capitol Visitor Center Thursday to join a protest urging President Barack Obama to act to raise wages.
“This building symbolizes the American dream for so many, but not for me and my kids,” said Reginald Lewis, 50, who joined seven of his co-workers wearing royal blue hoodies with “STRIKE!” across the chest for the hour-long East Front rally organized by progressive members of Congress and advocacy organizations.
Lewis said he earns $12 per hour washing dishes, mopping floors and taking out trash for millions of Congress’ visitors, but that’s not enough to save for retirement, help his 20-year-old daughter with college tuition or survive without food stamps. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, the father of three said he joined the strike “not for just me, but other workers that are in the same situation, got kids or just want a better lifestyle.” Thursday marked the 10th strike by protesters from the Smithsonian museums, the Pentagon, the National Zoo and Union Station, organized under the progressive banner of the Good Jobs Nation coalition, to protest for higher wages, more benefits and union representation.
This is the first time Capitol Hill employees have joined the call for higher wages and for the president to sign another executive order stipulating that companies with federal contracts grant collective bargaining rights.
“The symbolism is that you have people working in our buildings, 40 hours a week, with minimal or no benefits, and still depending on public assistance for their livelihood,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz, when asked about the Capitol workers.
“That’s the point,” Grijalva said listening to the protesters chant on the brisk November morning. “I think because it is a federal contract, and it is a federal building, it makes the point even more clear.”
Though Democrats didn’t fare well in the midterm elections, “minimum wage did,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who works with Grijalva as co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“Minimum wage won all over this country,” Ellison said in an interview Wednesday. “Economic opportunity for working people is not just good politics, it’s good policy, it’s the right thing to do. My advice to anybody is to get on the side of working America and you can’t go wrong.”
At the beginning of 2014, Obama signed an executive order increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for workers on new government contracts, but that new rule only applies to companies that contract with the executive branch. There are at least 2,500 contract workers providing services to the legislative branch, according to figures previously provided to CQ Roll Call by every legislative branch agency except the Capitol Police, which declined to comment.
“I cook meals for members of Congress, lobbyists and the workers upstairs, but the workers in the basement live in poverty,” said Thomas Jones, 31, who has worked as a CVC food-services contractor for nearly six years. In that time, his hourly wage rose to $12 per hour from a starting rate of $11 per hour.
By comparison, the District’s minimum-wage workers earned $8.25 per hour at the beginning of last year. Under a recently enacted increase, that rate went to $9.50 on July 1, and will culminate with an $11.50 minimum in July 2016.
Jones and Lewis are hoping for higher wages and a union to represent their interests. While protesters were calling on the president to once again use his executive power to mandate that contracted workers be allowed to unionize — an action that would only apply to the executive branch — the CVC employees hoped the protest would highlight their desire for a food-services union at the Capitol.
”We want to be unionized like everybody else,” Lewis said. “So, we’re left out and we work hard to provide the meals, service, cleaning, all that. And we just want a better lifestyle and living.”
The CVC food service workers and their fellow strikers criticized their employer’s billion-dollar profits while they struggle to make ends meet. Compass Group, a British multinational food-service contracting group, is the umbrella organization for Restaurant Associates, which serves the Capitol. According to its website, Compass is a $6 billion organization.
“Cooperatives are getting rich off of federal contractors and leaving hard-working Americans in poverty,” Lewis told the crowd. “The truth is that the U.S. Capitol does not symbolize the American dream; it symbolizes inequality.”
As the protesters chanted and the band members blew their horns, new members of Congress were inside the Capitol learning the ins and outs of lawmaking.
“I want them to see that federal government should set the example,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said of her new colleagues. “That it should be the one that is giving its contractors and the workers that work in those facilities a livable wage.”
Related: Protest Raises Questions About Contract Workers of Legislative Branch How Much Do Congressional Contractors Make? It Depends Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.