Congressional tour guides and visitor assistants began efforts last week to form a union, citing concerns over the management practices at the Capitol Visitor Center.
Eighteen CVC employees sent letters Thursday to about 30 Members of Congress and Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, explaining their plans to form a union under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It’s the first time in the 134 years that Congress has had a Capitol Guide Service that Capitol tour guides have taken such a step.
“Our love of country and passion for history is a gift we have long shared with constituents visiting this great institution from every corner of America,” reads the letter sent to Members. “It is the hope of the Guides and Visitor Assistants to return to an era of world class customer service, and the masterful command of knowledge that has inspired and educated generations of Americans about the United States Congress and Capitol Building that all of us are so proud to work within.”
For more than 100 years, Capitol tour guides worked in what one employee described as a “mom and pop shop.” The group, first managed under the Capitol Police, was moved to the Senate in 1970, maintaining a work force of about 40 guides who led small groups of tourists through the Capitol. But that changed in December 2008, when the Capitol Visitor Center opened and the AOC took over management of the guide service.
Now, the AOC employs almost 60 guides, along with more than 70 visitor assistants. While guides once limited their tour groups to 40 people, they now are sometimes forced to handle 80 or 90 visitors at a time. Meanwhile, visitor assistants are tasked with wayfinding, manning posts inside and outside the CVC to ensure visitors can get questions easily answered.
All are under the jurisdiction of the AOC, which handles more than 3,000 employees and has a large division for CVC visitor services. During the tourist season, guides sometimes handle five or six tours a day, thanks to an influx of visitors that has doubled since the CVC opened.
AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki declined to comment on the plan, citing an agency policy not to discuss personnel matters. But Carl Goldman, executive director of AFSCME Council 26, said guides are concerned about new policies under AOC management.
For example, he said, visitor assistants are only allowed to wear their uniforms when on duty, but they are also only given thin uniform jackets for the winter months. Employees thus spend four-hour shifts outside without proper winter coats as they direct visitors to the CVC.
A CVC visitor services employee — who asked to remain anonymous because the AOC forbids employees to talk to the press — said guides and visitor assistants also are not allowed to carry around water bottles. On Friday morning, officials announced a change in policy allowing assistants posted outside to carry water. But the rest are out of luck — even when tour guides must climb the 372 steps to give Capitol Dome tours.
Other issues include headsets that are never sanitized and overpacking theaters where visitors watch an introductory film. The visitor services employee said guides also are not given time to do research on the job, leading them to keep up on Congressional issues and history on their own time.
“We love our jobs, we love Congress, we love the Capitol,” the employee said. “We just want the tools and the policies to do our job better.”
Goldman said some employees also missed out on a year of tuition reimbursement, despite legislation that required guides to keep existing benefits. The benefit was recently restored, but some employees missed out on thousands of dollars of reimbursement.
The AFSCME has represented hundreds of AOC laborers, janitors and trade workers since the late 1990s. In order to form a union at the CVC, 30 percent of the expected membership would have to sign a petition asking for a vote, and the Office of Compliance would have to determine whether there is “sufficient interest” to allow such an election.