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17 arrested as Senate dining workers protest at the Capitol

Layoff threats have left them in a state of constant uncertainty

Senate cafeteria workers gather around Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Wednesday as they call for job security and a union contract.
Senate cafeteria workers gather around Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Wednesday as they call for job security and a union contract. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The mercury was well above 90 degrees and the asphalt was even hotter outside the Capitol, where Quentin Blackman and Anthony Thomas sat in the beating sun waiting to be arrested. 

Both received layoff notices last week for the second time from Senate dining contractor Restaurant Associates, and once again got a reprieve. They won’t lose their jobs after all, but they still came out Wednesday to voice their demands. They want a union contract with better pay and benefits — and they want senators to pay attention.

Soon they found themselves being led away by Capitol Police, along with other dining workers and members of their union, UNITE HERE Local 23. All were charged with crowding, obstructing or incommoding, which is a misdemeanor

Among the 17 people arrested was Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich. He was the only member of Congress to be detained, though Democratic lawmakers from both chambers stopped by to make an appearance, including Missouri Rep. Cori Bush and Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Bernie Sanders.

Capitol Police arrest Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., after he joined UNITE HERE Local 23 and 25 members in blocking Constitution Avenue on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As he marched toward the intersection of First Street and Constitution Avenue Northeast, where he was arrested, Blackman said he feels like a pawn in a cycle of escalation between his employer and the Architect of the Capitol, which manages the dining contract. 

The two sides have been playing a high-stakes game as they fight over who will pay for a recently struck collective bargain agreement that gives workers a raise and new benefits like a pension and more affordable health care. 

“It’s discouraging,” Blackman said. “But at the same time, I understand they have to play their positions and we have to play ours. At the end of the day, we have to fight back.”

In April, lawmakers secured $3.75 million in already-appropriated pandemic funding to keep 81 dining employees on the payroll after Restaurant Associates gave them layoff notices. The notices arrived after a previous round of pandemic aid had run dry. 

This time around, Restaurant Associates told dozens of employees they could either take jobs on George Washington University’s campus or be laid off. On Wednesday, the union representing the dining workers heard that Restaurant Associates changed course after the AOC assured them the pandemic money would last until Sept. 30. 

Thomas, who doesn’t have health insurance from his employer, said he and his fellow workers feel uneasy as they worry about their jobs and wonder if the benefits Restaurant Associates promised will ever come. 

“The unknown just kills me,” he said, explaining that while he would have probably taken the transfer — his family can’t afford for him to lose his job — it would be hard to leave the Capitol. 

“Working here makes you feel good. I call my job politicking with politicians,” he said. “For me to leave here and go somewhere else, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Levin described the workers’ actions as courageous. Plenty of lawmakers have gotten arrested outside the Capitol before to make a point, like the 17 Democrats who kneeled in the street Tuesday in support of abortion rights. But their status largely protects them, and the same can’t be said for everyone. 

“It takes so much bravery for workers to stand up and try to form a union in the first place,” he said. “And then to take direct action like this to demand their rights to risk arrest and so forth, is really a profound act.”

The pandemic turned the previously bustling Capitol complex into a ghost town, including its cafeterias. While public tours resumed this spring, food service has not fully recovered. 

“They are still hemorrhaging money,” Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton told a Senate appropriations subcommittee in May. 

Revenue from the restaurants was down 90 percent at one point, he testified, and while things have significantly improved, “there is a delta between what the Senate expects the restaurants to be able to deliver and the cost for the services that they are providing.”

The uncertainty is likely to continue as the end nears for the Senate dining contract, which expires in December. This week, at the request of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, the AOC approached Restaurant Associates to begin talks for a possible extension, AOC spokeswoman Christine Leonard said. 

The one-year extension until December 2023 would allow more time to see if dining facilities bounce back and to consider how a future contract with a vendor should be structured.

“We are trying to bridge this period by coming up with an interim solution that will carry us forward for another year,” Leonard said.

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