While Senate Democrats have had a difficult time getting pro-worker federal labor reforms across the legislative finish line, they were able to secure a recent victory for essential service workers in their own office building.
“The money’s been found,” announced Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) this past Wednesday before a relieved picket line of Senate cafeteria workers. “No one is getting laid off. You were the heroes during the pandemic and now it’s time for us to step up on your behalf.”
Just one week earlier, over 80 U.S. Senate cafeteria workers received a notice from their employer, Restaurant Associates, informing them that their positions were to be eliminated due to funding shortfalls just as the U.S. Capitol is scheduled to reopen to the public.
In response, workers mobilized and organized a picket line protest demanding no layoffs, fair wages, and a strong union contract.
Anthony Thomas, a porter and dishwasher at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, was one of the workers at risk of losing his job. He joined the picket line alongside his fellow workers and members of UNITE HERE Local 23, the union that represents the cafeteria workers.
“At the end of the day we are all workers, all working class people,” Thomas said. “I love my job […] that’s why I’m here, fighting for the union, fighting for coworkers with less seniority than me. I’m fighting for everybody. Local 23 has given me a voice that I plan on using.”
The workers, who organized with UNITE HERE late last year and do not yet have a formal collective bargaining agreement, were joined on the picket line by an all-star cast of lawmakers from both houses of Congress.
“Just because we have a fancy title or wear a fancy pin doesn’t mean we can’t show solidarity with you all,” said. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO). “I’m sad that you have to be out here in the first place. As the proud daughter of a former union member, please know that you have folks who have these titles and wear these pins who support you.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) drew attention to the fact that many of those at risk of losing their jobs in the Senate were working throughout a deadly pandemic as well as the January 6 insurrection.
“The people who were here on January 6 trying to make sure the Capitol could function are the same ones we are trying to protect today,” said Casey. “The least we can do is make sure that those workers have their dignity affirmed by making sure that they are employed, paid a fair wage, and have the benefit and protection of a union.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who chairs the committee that oversees the contracts under which cafeteria workers are employed, played a key role in brokering the deal. The Architect of the Capitol’s office is expected to use $3.75 million from previously appropriated Covid relief funds to prevent the cafeteria worker layoffs.
“When I see all your faces, I think about everything you’ve been through,” Klobuchar told the picketing workers. “You were here on the frontlines. You were here in the cafeteria. […] It was really hard, and you hung in there for us.”
Ahead of the protest, Klobuchar and 17 of her Senate colleagues submitted a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) urging them to provide funding to support the continued employment of the Senate cafeteria workers.
“The current pay and benefits available to Senate cafeteria workers are already shameful,” wrote the senators. “For these workers to be laid off after serving this body throughout the Covid-19 pandemic in these conditions would be a stain on our institution.”
Of all cafeteria workers in federal buildings around Washington, DC, Senate cafeteria workers are the least likely to benefit from health and retiree benefits through their employer. Only 18 percent have employer-sponsored health insurance and none are enrolled in employer-sponsored pension benefits, according to UNITE HERE.
Meanwhile, these workers are expected to serve some of the wealthiest members of Congress each and every day, none of whom visited the picket line. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) is worth over $85 million, thanks to his days at Bain Capital. Former venture-capital executive Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) has a net worth of over $93 million. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) — the richest member of Congress — founded two healthcare companies and is worth an estimated $200 million.
Preventing over 80 workers from losing their jobs, however, is a temporary solution to a much larger problem on Capitol Hill. Senate cafeteria workers remain in the throes of negotiating their first contract, while House staffers who have long complained of brutal work schedules, relatively low wages, and a lack of workplace diversity are seeking to unionize.
“Essential workers all across the country have died during the pandemic because they went to work,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the picket line. “Ultimately as we build the union movement in this country, what we are fighting for is an economy that works for everybody, not just a handful of billionaires. You are part of that growing movement.”