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Capitol Food Workers Bring Income Inequality to Congress’ Front Step

Workers called for higher wages and a union. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Workers called for higher wages and a union. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

For the third time in the past eight months, food-service workers at the Capitol have gone on strike to push for higher wages and union representation, a rare example of a national issue — income inequality — hitting close to home for Congress.  

Forty Capitol workers, the highest number so far, joined roughly 650 federal contract workers from across the District of Columbia Wednesday who went on strike and rallied in Upper Senate Park. The previous Capitol protests called on President Barack Obama to take executive action to raise contract-worker wages, which would not have affected workers in the legislative branch. But on Wednesday, workers called on Congress to raise the minimum wage, and presidential candidate and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., announced at the rally they would introduce legislation to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.  

With the Republican-led Congress, it is extremely unlikely the measure will move through either chamber. In the meantime, workers in the Senate and Capitol Visitor Center are trying to raise awareness about their low wages and lack of collective bargaining rights.  

One such worker, Sontia Bailey, 34, lives in D.C., and works in the Senate Refectory, the a-la-carte cafe on the first floor of the Senate. Bailey penned an op-ed in The Guardian Tuesday, stating that her $10.59 per hour wage at the Capitol forced her to get a second job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. But she said the 70-hour workweek took a toll on her body and when she recently suffered a miscarriage, she could not afford to take time off.  

“The truth is, I couldn’t afford to grieve,” Bailey told the workers gathered at the rally. “I had to get back to work so I could have a proper and decent funeral for my baby. … If I made $15 an hour at the U.S. Capitol, I wouldn’t have to work two jobs. If I had just one good paying job, I would be a new mother today. We need Congress to pass $15 an hour and give us a union.”  

After the rally, Bailey said in an interview that $15 an hour would help her ensure she has stable housing.  “And then $15 and a union? We could go to someone that’s higher above us to accommodate us in issues that we have on the job.”  

Bailey said she is comfortable approaching management with issues, but many of her colleagues are not for fear they will lose their jobs. She also noted a union could help workers deal with a persistent problem for Capitol food workers: layoffs when Congress leaves town.  

Bailey described the “first-in, first-out” policy for layoffs during recess, and the difficulty in obtaining unemployment insurance or a second job in the interim.  

“Besides myself, there’s multiple workers that have two jobs, three jobs, that try to make ends meet,” Bailey said. “When the senators go on recess, if you don’t have another job, you can’t survive. They tell us to apply for unemployment, but as soon as you apply for unemployment, it’s time to go back to work so you’re missing out.”  

Senate and Capitol administrators are currently in the process of renegotiating the Senate contract with Restaurant Associates, which expires on Dec. 1. But those involved in negotiations are mum on the issue, citing the ongoing process.  

The Senate Rules Committee and the Architect of the Capitol have jurisdiction over the contract, though a Rules Committee spokesperson noted in an email that the Architect of the Capitol is involved in the preliminary negotiations, and committee staff are not in the negotiating room.  

However, some Capitol workers have been working behind the scenes to push their issues. One Senate worker, who asked not to be identified, said a handful of workers have met with Rules Committee staff four or five times in recent months to push to have a voice in the negotiations.  

“We go in and we voice our opinion and let them know what we want, what we’re looking for,” the worker told CQ Roll Call. “And letting them know that we need a seat at the table too, because Restaurant Associates have their people, Rules have their people, but no one from the restaurant is there.”  

The worker said staffers listened and took notes when workers expressed the need for “a livable wage” and a seat at the negotiating table. The worker said staff noted they are “not trying to get into the running of the cafeteria,” but staff also said, “They’re trying, they’re working on issues, trying to make some things right for employees downstairs in the cafeteria.”  

But as negotiations continue, some workers say they are left in the dark about what happens next.  

“I just know that they’re up for renegotiation and that’s it,” Bailey said when asked about the food service contract. “They really don’t touch bases with workers at all.”  

Though negotiations are currently between Restaurant Associates and the Architect of the Capitol, Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., does have to sign off on the contract.  

Blunt said Wednesday he could not comment on contract negotiations. But, he did say, “I’m very interested and very sympathetic to a number of these topics: available hours to work, difficulty of getting here, things like that.”  

“And that’ll be part of the discussion as we renew the contract that our friends on the other side … negotiated seven years ago,” he said, referring to Democrats’ negotiation of the current contract when they were in the majority.

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