Vote Set for Food Workers Union

Posted July 13, 2012 at 5:37pm

Senate food service workers are poised to vote July 24 on whether they want to unionize, a move that would put them on par with their House counterparts.

“A lot of people want the union,” said one Senate cafeteria employee who did not want to be named. “But a lot of people are scared.”

Employees of House dining services have been unionized under Unite Here!, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, for almost as long as they have been privately managed. Guest Services Inc. took over management of House dining services  in 1986. The House signed a new contract with Restaurant Associates in 2007.

Senate food workers have been on Restaurant Associates’ payroll since the summer of 2008, when the Senate Rules and Administration Committee discovered that the Architect of the Capitol’s management of the dining program was yielding zero financial benefits.

At the time, some Senators said they wanted to make sure that the new contract with Restaurant Associates would ensure employees could retain a host of benefits and workplace rights, including the right to unionize.

Supporters of unionization say the time is right.

“Right now we feel good about the outcome of the vote,” said Teresa Engleman, the secretary and treasurer of the union under which the Senate workers would be organized: the Mid-Atlantic Regional Board of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

“As we talk to workers, we see the workers are excited. They’re saying they want a change,” Engleman said.

A handful of pro-union food service workers in the Senate who spoke to Roll Call on condition of anonymity cited the need for better vacation schedules, more reliable working hours and consistency across various workplace policies.

But there are others who fear unionizing would tie their hands and take their money.

An informational campaign by Restaurant Associates has fueled some of those concerns, union advocates said.

According to one worker, Restaurant Associates sent representatives to Capitol Hill to hold a mandatory meeting late last week to speak to all employees in advance of next Tuesday’s vote.

“They called a meeting to tell us there will be a vote on the 24th, and that what comes after that vote is unknown,” the employee said. “They told us that the only thing the union can guarantee us is a vote, but they can’t guarantee us benefits, better working conditions or better communication with the management team because they will be the ones making the decision, not us.”

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers or their designees are allowed to speak to employers in advance of a union certification vote and share their opinions about unions generally.

They cannot, according to the National Labor Relations Board website, “question [employees] about their union support or activities in a manner that discourages them from engaging in that activity,” or threaten job security.

Gina Zimmer, a spokeswoman for Restaurant Associates, would not comment on whether the company sent representatives to meet with Senate food service employees, but she did say that it “did not send a representative to deter employees from voting in accordance with the National Labor Relations Act.”

“Our associates are at the heart of our mission, vision and values. Restaurant Associates respects every employee’s right to choose in accordance with the National Labor Relations Acts,” Zimmer said in a statement to Roll Call.