Contract workers in the U.S. Senate will walk off their jobs Wednesday to join contractors from across the District of Columbia in a strike calling for preference to be given to contractors who offer better wages, benefits and collective bargaining rights.
The Senate janitors and food service workers will join workers from the Capitol Visitor Center, the Pentagon, Union Station, the National Zoo and Smithsonian Institution at the rally on the West Front of the Capitol Wednesday morning. In November, workers from the Capitol Visitor Center joined the protest , marking the first time contract workers in the Capitol walked off their jobs as part of the movement. Wednesday is the first time Senate workers will join the strike.
The event is the 12th strike in two years organized by the advocacy group Good Jobs Nation. Organizers expect around 1,000 people to gather at the Capitol, roughly half of whom are workers, though they could not speak to the number of Capitol workers who will be participating.
But the rally's focus is not on the legislative branch. Instead, workers are calling on President Barack Obama to issue an executive order that gives preference to federal contractors that pay $15 an hour, provide benefits including paid leave, and allow for collective bargaining. But a presidential executive order would not apply to the roughly 2,500 contract workers in the legislative branch.
Despite that caveat, workers and organizers hope the rally will draw attention to the economic struggles for federal contract workers at the Capitol as well.
“If you have a contract with the United States Congress, and I don’t know all the details about who does, those people should be paid a living wage," Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., told CQ Roll Call Tuesday. "The preference should be given to those contractors who are prepared to pay a living wage.”
Sanders will be one of several lawmakers joining the workers on strike. Asked about the fact an executive order would not apply to Capitol contractors, Sanders said, "They are participating, I would guess, as a show of solidarity. And the bottom line is the federal government, anybody, any business that has a contract with the federal government, should pay a living wage.”
In addition to solidarity, Senate workers hope their strike will spur substantive changes.
Pam Cadlett, 59, who works as a cashier in the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria, said in a phone interview, "What I’m expecting from the rally is to get some changes done and, just like I said, at least to get $15 an hour and have a union.”
Cadlett said her $13-per-hour wages were not enough to maintain the mortgage on her home in Templeville, Md. “I can’t even afford my home," she said. "My brother has taken over my mortgage,” she added, noting she rents out her basement to make extra money.
Cadlett is one of the many contract workers on Capitol Hill. A spokesperson for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms said Tuesday there are between 100 and 200 contractors in the Senate at any point in time and a CQ Roll Call survey in 2014 found more than 2,000 people work throughout the legislative branch.
But these workers are not unionized. For Cadlett, a union could help push for higher wages and address the practice by which she goes without work when the Senate recesses.
"We’re not being treated fairly," the 13-year Senate employee said. "When the Senate goes out on recess, we get no pay. We have to stay without a paycheck until they come back.”
Cadlett has also run into a problem plaguing other Senate food service workers, whose pensions froze in 2008 after Capitol dining services transferred from the auspices of the Architect of the Capitol to a contract with Restaurant Associates. Members of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee indicated they were reviewing the benefit freeze issue, but workers and organizers also hope other senators will be moved to act on behalf of Senate workers.
Organizers are particularly focused on placing pressure on the number of senators making and contemplating a run for the presidency.
“The truth is, the federal government is America’s largest low wage job creator, and we as taxpayers are footing the bill," Good Jobs Nation spokesman Paco Fabian wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call. "If they are not willing to help workers who serve them directly, then how can working people in Iowa and New Hampshire expect something different?”
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