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House cafeteria workers eyeing pickets, walkouts if contract talks sour

Union representing 155 workers in House buildings seeks higher wages

Unite Here union members protest outside Senate office buildings in support of cafeteria workers last year.
Unite Here union members protest outside Senate office buildings in support of cafeteria workers last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

If contract negotiations with dining services operator Sodexo don’t improve, the union representing House cafeteria and catering workers expects some representatives, staff and visitors may have to skip lunch at some point later this year.  

“We expect to probably have to do the kind of actions … on the House side like we did on the Senate,” said D. Taylor, president of Unite Here, the union that represents House dining workers. 

Last year, Senate cafeteria workers protested and picketed amid negotiations before ratifying a new contract in the fall.

The collective bargaining agreement for the House’s 35 caterers expired at the end of the year, while the contract for 120 dining services workers ends in May. While the two sides are talking, the terms of the old contracts will continue to apply.

The House workers in Unite Here Local 23 basically want the same deal that their colleagues in the Senate got last year, which boils down to a demand for higher wages. Their current contracts set the lowest starting wage at $13.85 per hour; the union wants that minimum raised to $20.

“You know the D.C. area, the cost of living, so we’re looking for substantial wage increases to make sure people can stay where they live,” Taylor said in a phone interview.

Taylor pointed to Sodexo’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the collective bargaining rights of cafeteria workers at some other government locations as evidence of the company’s potential intractability in the House cafeteria talks. 

In a statement, Sodexo sounded a more upbeat note than Taylor did. “Sodexo respects the right of our unionized employees, as proven by the hundreds of CBAs we have in good standing with unions across the country. Sodexo is confident that upcoming negotiations will result in an amicable agreement for the employees, the union, and our client,” Sodexo district manager Fred Johnson wrote.

The union faces a less friendly political landscape with a GOP-controlled House this year compared with a Democrat-led Senate last year. While Unite Here is negotiating with Sodexo, lawmakers ultimately retain control over the facilities.

Last year, senators helped break a deadlock between Unite Here Local 23 and Restaurant Associates, the Senate dining concessionaire, finding federal funds to help cover the added labor costs from the new contract.

It’ll be harder for the House workers to get similar support this year with Republicans in charge and looking to cut federal spending across the board. House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Unite Here won’t waver in the face of changing political winds, Taylor said.

“The Republicans are claiming to be the real voice of the working class,” Taylor said. “I’m sure they’ll have an opportunity to either prove that to be true or prove that to be total BS.”

House Administration ranking member Joseph D. Morelle sent a letter to both Unite Here and Sodexo earlier this month urging both sides to “engage in good-faith negotiations.”

“Even though they are not full-time House employees, the food service workers employed by Sodexo are a vital part of our community and integral to the function of Congress,” Morelle wrote. “They deserve to be compensated fairly.”

Morelle’s office also did not respond to requests for comment.

While the Senate workers only organized in 2021, the House workers have been unionized for years. When Sodexo took over control of the House operations in 2015, the French multinational retained existing staff and voluntarily recognized the union.

Sodexo runs 10 House dining facilities, including the Capitol Market in the basement, the Longworth and Rayburn office cafeterias, and branded shops like the Au Bon Pain in Cannon. Sodexo’s contract with the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer is up for renewal in 2025, when the CAO could either terminate the deal, renegotiate or exercise a six-year extension option.

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