Library of Congress Cafeteria Workers Feud With New Vendor

Posted January 11, 2008 at 5:31pm

A new cafeteria vendor has sparked a dispute over wages and job security at the Library of Congress, with the cafeteria workers’ union claiming that the company wants to decrease pay and fire employees.

I.L. Creations took over the Library’s cafeteria services only two weeks ago, stepping in after negotiations fell through between the Library and a long-standing food vendor. Company President Steve Choi says he has no intention to change any pay or benefits employees enjoyed under the previous vendor, Sodexho.

But he also has not signed an agreement to keep those wages and benefits, nor has he sat down with the union to hammer out new terms. Now, he stands accused of “union busting” by the cafeteria workers’ union.

It’s all premature, Choi said. The company is on an interim contract for three months, after which it might sign a more comprehensive 15-month contract with the Library. At this point, he said, I.L. Creations has no guarantee that it will be there for more than 90 days — a period during which federal law already requires him to honor the same terms as the union’s previous contract.

“I cannot understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “There’s nothing to renegotiate. If we get a 15-year contract, then we have something to negotiate. We’re just honoring their previous contract negotiations.”

Apprehension about the company partly stemmed from new 90-day badges issued to workers — the same time period that I.L. Creations is required to keep a previous contractors’ employees, said John Boardman of UNITE HERE Local 25, which represents the cafeteria workers.

The temporary badges were just a coincidence, according to Library officials. Instead of issuing new yearlong badges, the Library unintentionally gave employees badges that expired on the same date as their Sodexho ones, coincidentally 90 days from when I.L. Creations started.

Still, the argument has quickly escalated in the two weeks since I.L. Creations took over, with union officials circulating a flier criticizing the Library for making a deal with the company. The agency, union officials argue, has a responsibility to ensure that all vendors treat employees fairly.

But Library officials said the agency is not responsible for the employees beyond ensuring that the vendors it hires follow the law; technically, about 35 workers in the cafeteria are now employees of I.L. Creations, not the Library itself.

“I don’t know what really to say,” said Neal Graham, LOC chief of facility services. “Any compensation between that employee and the company they work for is between that employee and that company.”

Graham said I.L. Creations is following the law — basically, keeping the same employees under the same wages and benefits. Boardman, on the other hand, said I.L. Creations is required to recognize the union and bargain.

It’s possible another vendor could take I.L. Creation’s place in a matter of months, and Choi said it is this prospect that makes bargaining unnecessary. In the next few months, the Library plans to ask for proposals for a permanent vendor to move in by June 2009. In the meantime, I.L. Creations is filling in the gap as an interim vendor hired without a competitive bidding process.

Whether the company will compete for the permanent contract depends on how the next few months go, Choi said.

“I’m just doing a favor for [the Library],” Choi said. “I understand that Sodexho lost money there in the last nine years, and I have to see if I can turn that around and make a profit.”

Such a temporary solution became necessary after the Library canceled a bidding process that began in 2007. With the Capitol Visitor Center opening this year — and more traffic expected in the Jefferson Building — Library officials wanted prospective vendors to address a long-term goal of expanding food service. The Library’s original request for proposals made no mention of this need and so officials canceled the process in November.

That left only a few weeks to extend the contract with Sodexho or find a temporary vendor. Negotiations with Sodexho broke down because of disagreements over the company’s plans, including Sodexho’s intention to move the Madison Building coffee shop and close the cafeteria in the Adams Building, Graham said. With Sodexho’s contract up at the end of December and no agreement in sight, the Library reached out to several companies.

I.L. Creations was the only company that was willing to set up shop in two weeks.

But union officials say the Library has an obligation to look out for the treatment of the cafeteria workers. I.L. Creations has sent troubling signals by refusing to sit down with union officials and changing policy without negotiations, Boardman said. Local 25 and I.L. Creations have a history, as well: The union filed an unfair labor practice against the company when I.L. Creations refused to sign a new contract for workers in another federal building. That dispute is still ongoing.

At the Library, the union has some support. The LOC Professional Guild, a separate union for Library employees, criticized the Library for its choice in a vendor.

“We are dismayed that the Library would continue with a business that would refuse to sign an agreement with a union,” said Saul Schniderman, the guild’s president. “When a government agency like the Library of Congress acts like this, it sends a message.”

One of Local 25’s chief complaints about I.L. Creations was a delay in health care coverage, Boardman said. Choi only activated the union’s recommended health care policy last week, leaving employees without coverage for about 10 days, he said. Choi said the holidays made it difficult to do it more quickly, and workers had the option of coverage from a federal insurance program that covers employees during a break in employment. But Boardman said the gap prevented some workers from being able to pay for prescriptions and the company only began the coverage after being prodded by union officials.

The union also has criticized the new pay schedule, which I.L. Creations changed from weekly to biweekly without negotiating with the union. With wages that range from $11 to $17 an hour, many employees rely on being paid every week, Boardman said.

“Food service workers have no cushion,” he said. “It’s paycheck to paycheck. Waiting an extra week is a huge hardship.”

Choi admitted that he changed the schedule and only notified employees when someone asked at an orientation. He might be able to make arrangements for those who are financially strapped, he said, but biweekly paychecks are the way the company’s pay system has always been organized. Choi said he has no intention of firing employees or changing wages, other than to hire more employees and increase wages if the company makes a bigger profit.

“The only thing that I know is how to make a cheeseburger to make my customers happy,” he said, “and if I have more customers, then I’m going to need more employees.”