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Cafeteria Workers’ Union in Battle Over Benefits

Most Library of Congress cafeteria workers are to receive free health care this month, but their union sees the move as a violation of the workers’ legal rights.

I.L. Creations took over as vendor of the James Madison Building cafeteria at the end of December — a temporary fill-in after negotiations broke down between the previous vendor and Library officials. Since then, the union has accused Creations of refusing to sit down to negotiate a bargaining agreement.

Tensions escalated last week when Creations announced it was changing how workers pay for health care.

Now, a worker on an individual plan pays about $30 a month, while the company pays approximately $350. Those on a family plan pay about $300, and the company contributes approximately $700.

Under the new plan, individuals would pay nothing, while those on a family plan would have to pay for everyone but themselves — meaning a cost of at least $800 a month. Creations hopes to put it in effect in the next two weeks, said Vice President Charles Healey.

But union officials claim Creations President Steve Choi has unfairly gone over their heads and is trying to get rid of the union altogether. They argue that Creations must negotiate with them or follow the terms of their contract with Sodexho, the cafeteria’s previous vendor.

“He’s over there bargaining directly with the employees,” said William Aragon, co-director of UNITE HERE Local 25. “He should be bargaining with us as a bargaining agent of the employees.”

The argument has digressed into a series of accusations and arguments. Union officials claim Choi stood them up for a meeting on Feb. 14; Healey says it was a tentative date and he notified the union’s shop steward of the cancellation. Last week, one union official confronted Healey in his office, a heated argument ensued, and he was escorted out by the Library of Congress police, according to both Healey and Aragon. (Aragon said such incidents are “not out of the ordinary.”) Now, the union is trying to organize a boycott. On Friday, union leaders passed out fliers to Library employees urging them to stay away from the sixth floor cafeteria.

“It’s getting too rough,” Choi said. “If they want to talk, then we should negotiate, not talk at each other.”

Choi calls the union selective, benefiting some while leaving behind others. He’s changing the health payouts, he said, because only two employees of about 30 use the family option. By spreading out the money among the remaining 28, he said he is making the majority happy. He also has instituted a policy on tips: Any tip given to a server during catered events now must be split among the entire staff. Otherwise, he said some employees are favored over others.

In Choi’s view, the union has become a kind of bully, dictating the wants of workers. In the union’s view, Choi is trying to break up the bargaining unit, pitting employees against each other and using the company’s temporary status to forego the union’s rights.

“The guy, Choi, the way that we look at it is he doesn’t want to have a union contract in place,” Aragon said. “From day one, we felt that he’s wanted to bust the workers’ union.”

Creations took over the cafeteria’s operations in December, after the Library canceled a bidding process that began in 2007 because it failed to address one of the Library’s top priorities. With the Capitol Visitor Center opening this year — and more traffic expected in the Thomas 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.

When the Library couldn’t come to an agreement with Sodexho, officials turned to Creations. Now, Creations is on a three-month probationary period, which can be extended for at least 15 months at the end of March.

Choi said he is willing to negotiate with the union, but he also insists that such negotiations are not required. Since Creations could be leaving in a month, though that’s unlikely, negotiating with the union is premature, he said. But he will keep the same employees and he will never decrease their wages, he said. Creations could be in it for the long run: Choi is considering applying for a long-term contract once the Library restarts the official bidding process.

But this fight with the union won’t go away, and Local 25 and Creations have a history: The union filed an unfair labor practice against the company when Creations refused to sign a new contract for workers in another federal building. That dispute is still ongoing.

In the meantime, Choi said business is going well, with revenue up 30 percent. And despite the constant bickering with the union, he said his relationship with the employees is good. No word from the actual employees: On a recent afternoon, they deflected questions by citing a company policy to not talk about the issue while on the job.

“The employees are happy. It’s only a few people who want to have control of everybody,” Choi said. “You have workplace first, and then union.”

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