August on Capitol Hill is, like many things in Washington, divided. Lawmakers take a summer break. But Sontia Bailey, a food service worker, doubles up on work, splitting her days between the Capitol, where she serves meals for most of the year to some of the nation’s most influential decision-makers, and KFC, where she serves decidedly cheaper fare to locals—and earns a little bit more per hour.
But neither job pays near enough, and that’s what she finally told Senator Sherrod Brown in a private meeting this week: She can’t survive on her current wage of about $10.60 serving delicacies at the Senate Refectory (her fast food gig pays $11), so she and hundreds of fellow Capitol workers have joined the “Fight for $15” movement.
For scores of private contract workers at Senate facilities, winning the labor demands that thousands of low-wage workers have rallied around nationwide—a $15 minimum wage and a union—would be a stark challenge to a government system in which the top public servants are served by an impoverished privatized workforce. After numerous protests by federal contract workers and two short strikes in April and July, a group of senators just issued a letter to pressure the food service contractor, Restaurant Associates, to meet the campaign’s demands.
Building on an earlier statement of support for the campaign by nine Senators, now more than forty Senators are urging immediate action by Rules Committee Chair Roy Blunt, who oversees the cafeteria contract, to “investigate” the cafeteria workers’ grievances in upcoming contract negotiations, with the condition that “If Restaurant Associates is unable to treat and compensate its employees appropriately,” the Senate’s operational managers “terminate the contract and find a different vendor.”
The case for higher wages is straightforward—the estimated living wage in DC is around $20 per hour for a family of four. President Obama recently issued a series of executive orders to raise the minimum pay and fair labor standards for many contract workers for executive agencies.
The unionization issue broaches more complex labor crises in the public sector. According to a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling, management lashed back against workers with unfair retaliation, barring workers from speaking with organizers and imposing extra grunt work on those who participated in strike actions (the company quietly settled the case to avoid a trial).
The anti-labor hostility speaks to a broader pattern of public jobs being privatized. According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, years ago, when workers at the tony Senate Dining Room were regular federal employees, chefs and restaurant staff “earned living wages as well as health care and retirement benefits.” Then, in the name of “cost efficiency,” the jobs were outsourced to a private vendor in 2008, who “promptly slashed pay and benefits for new hires. Jobs that once paid living wages with full benefits now pay just over $10 per hour.” Their wages are eroded further by the perennial layoffs during each congressional recess, plus the lack of benefits drives many to rely on public benefits like food stamps (the very programs that conservatives in Congress have, ironically, sought to cut).
The low-wage jobs of government contract workers are the byproduct of Washington’s efforts to slash relatively high-paying public sector service jobs. According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, contract workers tend to earn much lower wages and have fewer benefits like healthcare, compared to directly employed federal workers.
The drive toward low-road jobs in the Capitol recently hit home painfully for Bailey. She suffered a miscarriage that she ties to the strains of economic hardship. “I get up at 6 in the morning; I don’t get home till 1:30, 2:00 in the morning, and then I do it all over again…. that played a major part in me losing my child,” she says. “Working and not getting proper rest, standing on my feet.” She tried, but was too exhausted to immediately resume her jobs, and subsequently lost weeks of work—and wages—save for one day of “bereavement.” Ultimately, she recalled in an essay, she and her fiancé “couldn’t even afford to grieve.”
These unforgiving working conditions are business as usual in Washington’s contracting system, in which lobbyists strike lucrative deals over lunch served by workers earning starvation wages. Demos notes that “many of the mostly highly compensated executives of firms headquartered in the Washington D.C region lead companies with billions of dollars in federal contracts.”
Yet just outside the Hill, workers’ communities suffer massive poverty and unemployment. The DC Fiscal Policy Insitute estimates “federal government contracting is responsible for almost 14 percent of the 177,000 jobs in the District that pay less than a living wage.”
Unionization remains a bulwark against privatization: UNITE HERE! unionized House cafeteria workers years ago, and today they often earn well above $15 an hour, with benefits. After a standoff over organizing turf, SEIU is now supporting organizing efforts by other Capitol workers through the Good Jobs Nation campaign. With the Fight for 15, workers are striving toward the union premium their House counterparts have already shown to be both politically feasible and economically sustainable.
Though Restaurant Associates, part of the UK-based mega-conglomerate Compass Group (which operates food services at military bases, universities and other public facilities worldwide), has refused to comment to the Nation about current contract negotiations, Roll Call reports that the Capitol’s Office of the Architect plans to begin negotiate a new contract in the coming weeks.
In the campaign’s statement following the Senators’ letter, Charles Gladden—who has proudly served at the Senate cafeteria while homeless—said the public shaming of the Capitol may finally pressure their boss to offer a decent new contract: “I worked here when Barack and Hillary were in the Senate, but this is the first time I can recall that any of the Senators we serve are standing up to help us get a living wage and a union.”
For Bailey, the Fight for 15 helps expose a crisis that’s long been invisible to her representatives—the indignity of inequality festering in the core of government power: “it’s good that they understand, and they see that, working in the Capitol and having people still live in poverty—that is not right.”