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Senate Staffers Rally Behind Capitol Food Workers

(Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
(Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

A group of Senate staffers are organizing in solidarity with Capitol food service workers, joining the workers’ push for a union and higher wages.  

More than two dozen staffers, donning stickers that read “Senate Staff Solidarity,” took up two tables in the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria Wednesday afternoon. The “brown bag boycott” sought to bring attention to the plight of Senate workers and show support for the workers’ push for union representation. “We want to have a visual for the cafeteria workers that there are people that support them, and their effort to improve their lives and have dignity at work,” said a Senate staffer who asked not to be named because she was acting in a personal capacity.  

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, also stopped by the boycott. Brown has been one of the Democratic senators pushing for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee to utilize ongoing contract negotiations with the food service vendor, Restaurant Associates, to pressure the company to pay higher wages and allow for collective bargaining.  

Brown spoke with Dirksen cafeteria worker Santos Villatoro while he was there. Villatoro said in a phone interview that she thanked him for his support and told him she hoped other senators would join the effort.  

“I felt very happy,” Villatoro, 60, said via a Spanish translator when asked about seeing the boycott. “It’s great to see that senators and their staff are taking time out of their busy schedules to show support to workers like that.”  

The Senate staffer explained that the boycott will occur each Wednesday afternoon. Staffers from a number of offices who have been active in pushing for better conditions for Senate workers were involved in organizing the boycott. Villatoro, who has participated in two strikes, also said Brown mentioned other senators would join the boycott next week, though the Ohioan didn’t name names.  

The staffers are pushing for Restaurant Associates to allow workers to join a union if a majority of workers sign membership cards, rather than hold a formal election. The group of staffers also launched a petition urging supporters to “Help Senate cafeteria workers form a union to bargain for a living wage!”  

As of 4 p.m., 39 people had signed the petition. The group also took to social media, creating “US Senate Labor” Twitter and Facebook accounts. Staffers were encouraged to tweet photos of their brown bag lunches using the hashtag “IStandWithSenateWorkers.”  

Senate food service workers are also pushing for the option to join a union by signing a membership card. Two workers recently called for the option in an op-ed in The Hill , and wrote that colleagues who have tried to organize have been subject to intimidation and harassment by management.  

Good Jobs Nation, the coalition that has been organizing workers in the Senate and Capitol Visitor Center, has filed multiple National Labor Relations Board charges against Restaurant Associates, alleging there is a “pattern of retaliation” against workers who speak out.  

In early September, the group filed another charge against Restaurant Associates, alleging the president of the company, Ed Sirhal, held a meeting with employees and “coercively interrogated employees about their union affiliations.” According to a copy of the charge obtained by CQ Roll Call, the president “shamed and humiliated” an employee who wrote about her experience in an op-ed in The Guardian, and informed employees that if they joined a union they would lose money to union dues and would not be able to directly communicate with management.  

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