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The executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Joint Board of Workers United — the SEIU-affiliated union that is trying to organize Senate food service employees — has challenged vendor Restaurant Associates’ corporate owners to a debate ahead of the July 24 union vote.

In the letter, which he copied to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Harold Bock also accused ownership of “misinforming” and “lying” to workers.

“If you want your employees to hear the facts and make their own choice about the Union you will accept this challenge from me to debate,” he wrote.

Gina Zimmer, a spokeswoman for Restaurant Associates, would not comment Wednesday on whether the business’s corporate owner, Compass, would accept the challenge.

“Restaurant Associates continues to respect our employers’ rights to make an informed decision as to whether to be represented by a union,” she said. “Restaurant Associates believes that all information provided in response to the employees’ questions has been factual and in accord with the law.”

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 summer 2008.

‘A Very Fine Line’

In the usual sort of spin-doctoring that takes place ahead of a vote on unionization, Bock, Workers United secretary and treasurer Teresa Engleman and various Senate food service employees who talked with Roll Call accused Restaurant Associates management of violating the National Labor Relations Act.

It’s not unusual for employers and organizers to engage in activities that skirt the line between permissible and impermissible behavior. But, according to National Labor Relations Board spokesman Tony Wagner, it’s “a very fine line” to begin with.

Wagner said that employers are prohibited from “coercing” employees in advance of a union vote, which includes threatening their job security or benefits or the promise of rewards if they choose not to unionize.

“Coercion,” he said, is different from “discouragement.”

“As far as what an employer can say, it’s actually pretty wide open,” Wagner continued. “There are very few limits. They can lay out their case, say, ‘You’re better negotiating with us directly,’ ‘You’ll lose money’ and things like that.”

Employers are also allowed to hold mandatory meetings, which some Senate food service workers say have been convened throughout the week to screen a video that paints an unflattering picture of life as a union member.

Restaurant Associates’ Zimmer said no such meetings were taking place.

“An informal meeting was held during their working hours shortly after a petition for the election was received to inform the employees of the election and the process the NLRB would use to conduct the election,” Zimmer said, referring to a meeting held on Capitol Hill last week. “Since that meeting, Compass representatives have, on occasion, been available to answer any employee question. No employee has been required to attend any of these subsequent discussions.”

Zimmer would not say whether videos were shown and would not comment on the substance of conversations between Compass representatives and employees.

Without knowing specifics, Wagner said it was difficult to say when “discouragement” enters into the realm of “coercion.” The NLRB does not monitor union certification campaigns unless a formal charge is filed.

Engleman of Workers United said company management has conducted surveillance of food service workers in the Senate over the past week. One employee said “they are watching us closely.”

Bock also mentioned it in his letter to Compass: “You should stop the surveillance of your employees … it is against the law and it is wrong! My god, they work in and serve the United States Senate!”

Understandably, Zimmer would not address those charges, which amount to claims that management has broken the law.

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