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.”