Dining workers vie for the Senate’s fragmented attention

Workers want Senate officials to show they are making progress on contract negotiations by May 18

Anthony Thomas, a Senate cafeteria worker, speaks at a union rally on April 6. Thomas broke his hand after that rally and does not have health insurance, and he urged lawmakers to help get a new contract that has improved protections and benefits for workers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Anthony Thomas, a Senate cafeteria worker, speaks at a union rally on April 6. Thomas broke his hand after that rally and does not have health insurance, and he urged lawmakers to help get a new contract that has improved protections and benefits for workers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 4, 2022 at 2:31pm

As people rushed to the Supreme Court this week to chant about abortion, a different kind of protest unfolded just a block away.

Senate dining workers gathered once again to march in a tight circle, calling for better benefits and job security. It was their latest action as they push for a union contract, and they tried to convey a sense of urgency.

Anthony Thomas recently broke his hand but doesn’t have health insurance. He works with food and supplies in the Capitol complex, and his bills are piling up.

“I’m just in a pickle,” he said Tuesday.

It was a strange day to be picketing on Capitol Hill. Of the hundreds of people shouting and waving signs, only a couple dozen were talking about the union. The rest were there to mourn or celebrate the news that the high court seems ready to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The dining workers had no way of knowing their action would be overshadowed, as they started planning it long before a leaked draft of the court’s decision exploded into view. And if it hadn’t been abortion, it could have been another issue dominating the conversation. For the workers who keep lawmakers fed on the Hill, it has never been easy to get attention for their demands.

“I’m just here doing what I believe in, which is fighting for my issues and my contract that we need,” said Thomas, one of about 175 workers who handle food in the Senate office buildings and Capitol Visitor Center.

Thomas and his colleagues work for an outside vendor, Restaurant Associates, rather than directly for the legislative branch. But they are counting on support from senators in their fight. The union representing the workers, UNITE HERE, has reached a tentative agreement with Restaurant Associates to raise pay and offer affordable health insurance, but it’s not a done deal until the Senate can renegotiate its own expiring contract with the vendor.

Workers want Senate officials to show they are making progress on those negotiations and are threatening further pickets and “next steps” if that doesn’t happen by May 18.

Some Democrats are taking notice. A group of senators, led by Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, sent a letter Wednesday urging the Architect of the Capitol to keep the union’s demands in mind as they hammer out new terms with Restaurant Associates.

“Of all cafeteria workers in federal buildings around Washington, D.C., Senate cafeteria workers are the least likely to be enrolled in employer-sponsored health insurance or retirement,” the letter says. “Only 18 percent have employer-sponsored health insurance and none are enrolled in employer-sponsored pension benefits.”

As chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, Klobuchar in particular has a voice in the matter since her panel has oversight over the Architect of the Capitol and how it operates the sprawling complex.

One crisis has already been averted, after about 80 workers facing layoffs in April got a reprieve. Pandemic relief money had dried up, but lawmakers were able to redirect $3.75 million in already-appropriated pandemic funding to help Restaurant Associates keep workers on the payroll through the end of September as the Capitol slowly reopens to visitors.

“Now that the immediate threat of layoffs is behind us, we encourage the Architect of the Capitol to work with all stakeholders, including Restaurant Associates and UNITE HERE, to ensure that the Senate food services contract reflects a commitment to a collective bargaining agreement with quality pay and benefits for all workers,” the letter says.

The Senate’s current contract with Restaurant Associates goes through December 2022, and the union has called for a new fee-for-service model that would be more transparent. The Architect of the Capitol has other options as well. In theory, the agency could put the food contract out for a bid or even move dining services back in-house, although that would be a drastic change.

The AOC and Restaurant Associates did not respond to a request for comment on the status of negotiations.

Union spokeswoman Diana Hussein said dining workers just want to see movement on their issues. With the fast pace in Washington, each week will bring some new policy debate or political showdown on the Hill. But these often-overlooked workers are serious about their demands, she said.

“They’re assessing what they can do, and I think it’s going to be whatever it takes,” she said. “Everything is on the table.”