Shop Steward at LOC Eatery Fired After 27-Year Career

Posted January 9, 2009 at 6:11pm

A month ago, Willie Price began her week by preparing for the Library of Congress’ annual holiday party for retired employees.

Price has handled the catering for the event for years, helping polish the silverware, fold the napkins and set the table. But this time, after the food was eaten and the guests were gone, the 27-year employee was fired.

Price is charged with a slew of infractions for, among other things, throwing silverware “violently into a pile,” storing outside food in the company’s refrigerator and not setting up the dining room early enough.

“She was in breach of a number of policies,” said Charles Healey, vice president of operations at I.L. Creations, which runs the Library’s cafeteria. “We felt it was bad enough that we had to let her go.”

The firing has the Library’s unions up in arms, with officials promising to boycott the cafeteria and demanding that the Library cut ties with I.L. Creations. They claim the company is trying to get rid of Price — a longtime union shop steward — with trumped-up charges.

It’s the latest in a string of disputes between the unions and I.L. Creations, the Maryland-based company that took over management of the Library’s cafeteria about a year ago.

Over the past year, union officials have criticized I.L. Creations for refusing to negotiate with the union for months, changing employees’ health care plans and firing a handful of workers. The cafeteria has about 30 employees, all of whom are represented by UNITE HERE Local 25.

At times, conversations between the two parties have become unusually heated — Library police once escorted an angry union official off the premises.

In a recent e-mail to members, the president of the LOC Professional Guild summed up his grievances.

“From the first day I.L. Creations came to the Library of Congress almost one year ago, they have been striving to undermine the union,” wrote President Saul Schniderman, whose union represents some Library employees but not cafeteria workers. “The company has called the [LOC] police to remove union representatives from the premises, used abusive language with employees, laid off workers, and now they have fired the shop steward.”

I.L. Creations officials deny any wrongdoing and in the past have painted the union as selective and bullish in dictating the wants of workers.

Library officials, meanwhile, stress that the disputes don’t involve the agency. Spokesman Matt Raymond said in an e-mail that cafeteria workers “are not employees of the Library of Congress, nor are they represented by any Library union.”

In a recent interview, Price said she has become attached to the Library during her nearly three decades there.

She started in 1981, working her way through “every position there,” from vending to cashier to cook to caterer.

“It’s been like my family. Everyone I know,” she said. “I may not know everyone by name, but I’m a Southern girl and Momma said, ‘It don’t cost a thing to be nice to anyone.’”

Price said she feels that I.L. Creations targeted her from day one, circulating rumors that she was disgruntled and informing co-workers that her family insurance package made their benefits more expensive.

“With all those different things going on, I knew they were out to get me in the first place,” she said. “But the union contract tells us — that’s what we follow — it’s you do the job first, you grieve it later.”

Healey declined to comment on the specifics, citing the ongoing grievance process.

But the incidents that led to Price’s firing are laid out by the company in a “Notification of Termination,” provided to Roll Call by the union.

According to the notice, Price is guilty of “abuse of company equipment” after being observed “taking silverware (knifes and forks) from a cleaning solution and wiping them down and throwing them violently into a pile.”

A charge of “rude and harassing behavior of other individuals” stems from her alleged refusal to stop throwing the utensils long enough for a waiter to pick them up.

Storing outside food trays in the company’s refrigerator was “unauthorized use of company policy.”

In the notice, Healey writes that Price put the food there for another caterer; Price insists she stored it at the request of a Library employee who was holding a holiday party.

A bag of beverages in the refrigerator — bought by Price for another event — led to a charge of “disloyalty to the Company.”

Finally, because Price waited until the day of the event to finish setting the tables — with the help of a wait staff — she “failed to fulfill the duties of her employment.”

“Willie Price was responsible for and given specific direction to prepare and setup the dining room for the catering,” the notification reads. “The room and setups were not prepared leading to a potentially disasterous result for the Company in harming the Company’s reputation and future business opportunities.”

Price says she couldn’t finish setting the tables because she was exhausted after a busy 12-hour day. With a slimmed-down staff, she said she alone was told to prepare for the 280-person retiree holiday party. In the past, that task fell to a catering team.

As for the company’s hint that she was helping another catering company or catering events herself, she denied the charge.

As a member of several organizations — such as Blacks in Government — Price said she sometimes picks up groceries for events.

“Why would I compete? That’s my job,” she said.

“Long as everyone’s buying from I.L. Creations, that keeps me a job and my co-workers a job,” Price added. “It benefits the whole staff; it benefits me.”