Last November, seven Capitol workers walked off their jobs to push for higher wages and a union. A year later, more than 10 times as many workers went on strike with the same mission, but a different target.
The seven original strikers from the Capitol Visitor Center marked the first time workers from the U.S. Capitol joined the push for higher wages. On Tuesday morning, roughly 100 workers from the CVC, the Senate and the Capitol went on strike, joining workers from other areas of the federal government to push for $15-an-hour wages and a union.
“It has grown, and we got more progressive … stronger, more demanding and more sensitive toward our needs,” CVC worker Reginald Lewis, 52, who was at the first strike, told CQ Roll Call. He later added, “It’s like a family.”
Since that first strike almost exactly a year ago, the target has shifted to the legislative branch. The original strike called on the president to issue an executive order that federal contractors allow for collective bargaining. But an executive order would not apply to workers in the legislative branch.
On Tuesday, the protesters focused their frustrations on lawmakers, rather than the president. They specifically called on senators, who they argue could have sway over the food service contract’s ongoing negotiations.
“Now there are a number of senators who get served by people right here. And they should know that if you are serving them, they have got to start serving you …” Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., told the crowd Tuesday, pausing for loud cheers, “by telling Compass Group that Compass will pay you a living wage.”
The Senate food service contract negotiations with Restaurant Associates, a subsidiary of Compass Group, are ongoing, with the contract set to expire on Dec. 1. Representatives from the Architect of the Capitol are the main negotiators, but the Senate Rules and Administration Committee must approve the new contract.
If there are no wage or union provisions in the new contract, workers vowed to keep fighting.
“There’s a moment to insert the workers’ issues into the [contract] debate. That’s why it’s strategic,” said Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of the union coalition Change to Win, who has led many of the strikes. “That being said … if we don’t get that window, we’ll keep pushing. It’s not going to go away. People are still suffering.”
The push to include such provisions in the contract has garnered support from a group of staffers and the entire Senate Democratic Caucus, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the No. 3 Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York, who is also the ranking member on the Rules Committee.
The Democratic Caucus signed a letter to the Rules Committee over the summer, urging the members to hold Restaurant Associates accountable for what they argued were low wages.
No Republican senators have spoken out in support of the food service workers’ strikes. But one maintenance worker said Tuesday that a GOP senator running for president supported giving him a raise.
Warner Massey, 55, of Fort Washington, Md., works on the cleaning staff in the Senate office buildings through Goodwill of Greater Washington. He makes $13.50 an hour and said he struggles to make ends meet. He also said he told Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, about his struggle when they met around six months ago.
“We had a brief conversation. He told me I was doing a great job, asked me — I told him I was a veteran, and he asked me how things were going,” Massey said after the rally. “So I told him, ‘I’m not doing all that great with what I’m making. I could stand to be making a little more.’ ”
“He said, ‘Well you guys deserve it. I want to help you accomplish that,’ ” Massey continued. “He may not remember it. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
When CQ Roll Call reached out to Cruz’s office Monday for comment on a related story, Cruz spokesman Phil Novack said the Texas Republican had not spoken with anyone about the push for higher wages for Capitol workers, nor does he have a position on the issue.
Though Capitol workers will continue to push lawmakers to support their cause, Geevarghese said their involvement has helped the national movement for higher wages.
“People now know that people who serve U.S. senators are homeless, they’re on Medicaid, they work second and third jobs,” Geevarghese said. “And I think these workers have helped put the larger issue of income inequality and low-wage work on the national radar, as part of the larger ‘Fight for 15′ movement. But I think by being here and serving the most powerful people in the world, they’re bringing a very sharp point to this.”