Our government has contracted (as in privatized or outsourced) with a British-owned, anti-union company to operate the U.S. Senate cafeteria. The company pays so little that many employees are on public assistance; at least one was homeless. Meanwhile the company is fighting efforts by the employees to organize a union.
The outsourcing company that operates the Senate and the Capital Visitors Center cafeterias, Restaurant Associates, is a subsidiary on a British firm called Compass Group. The company is resisting efforts by the employees to form a union, even using intimidation that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled is likely illegal.
Last week, 34 Democratic senators issued a strongly worded open letter to the company, asking it to negotiate a "labor peace," stop illegal anti-union activity and set the stage for ending strikes and boycotts at the U.S. Capitol and Senate.
"Employees working full time in the U.S. Senate should not be living in poverty. [...] The time has come for the Compass Group to ensure Senate cafeteria workers have a model employer that addresses its workers' legitimate concerns," the letter says.
The senators are asking the company to "recognize the union as the worker’s exclusive bargaining representative on the basis of a majority representation of signed authorization cards." The letter asks the company to please "rigorously abide by its obligations under U.S. labor law to refrain from intimidation and discrimination against employees seeking to join a union." In other words, they are asking the company to pay better and follow the law and allow the workers to unionize.
The ongoing "$15 and a union" effort for government contractors is organized by Good Jobs Nation.
The Human Impact and Political Imperative
The larger issue here is not just about the Senate cafeteria. The federal government, because of its privatization/outsourcing to contractors, is the largest low-wage employer in the country. Privatization and outsourcing has left millions of Americans in poverty, on assistance or homeless, with homes repossessed, families destroyed, and local communities economically stressed.
It's not even just about federal contractors and their employees. As Robert Borosage wrote earlier this month in The Huffington Post, the Senate cafeteria employees are symbolic of the forces that have depressed the wages of millions of workers.
"Unions are essential building blocks to a democratic economy with a strong middle class. It isn't an accident that as union membership has declined, inequality has risen to new extremes," he wrote, adding, "Even the conservative International Monetary Fund now accepts that unions are vital to an economy in which the blessings of growth are widely shared."
This points to a central political imperative for Democrats. "The importance of unions is crystal clear to those on the right, which is why they have waged an unrelenting war on them," Borosage wrote. "If Democrats had even a whiff of common sense, of long-term strategy, or of real commitment to building democracy, they would be as clear as Republicans are about what their job is. Every Democratic executive – from the president to governors to mayors and county executives – would be using the powers of his or her office to help workers organize. They would be forced to explain why unions are vital – to democracy, to a more equitable economy, to rising productivity. "
Borosage had written previously about how this issue affects the people who work in the U.S. Capitol. Sonita Bailey, for example, works full-time as a cashier and yet still has to take a second job at another fast-food restaurant to pay her bills. "She works 70 hours a week, Monday through Sunday, rising at 6 a.m. and getting back to sleep at 1 a.m. the next morning. When Jeb Bush suggests that workers have to learn to work 'longer hours' [an assertion repeated by Donald Trump at the most recent Republican presidential debate] she wonders what he can be thinking. The stress of working two jobs surely contributed directly to her recent miscarriage. 'If I had just one good paying job,' she writes, 'I would be a mother today.'"
Executive Order Will Raise Pay To Only $10.10
President Obama has ordered that federal contractors begin to pay $10.10 an hour, but the order does not begin to take effect until 2016 and does not require contractors to allow employees to organize unions. This will, of course, improve the pay but not the conditions, and this low level will still leave many workers in the Capitol area on public assistance – and some quite possibly homeless.
That is why the "$15 and a union" effort is important to help workers rise to a decent standard of living and to fight for better working conditions.
Meanwhile, all of the Republicans in the recent Republican Presidential candidate debate came out against raising the minimum wage. The "Party of the Confederacy" is now reverting to the wage policies of the Confederacy – in other words, don't pay wages.
"The fight for decent wages and a union among Senate cafeteria workers is important in itself," Borosage concluded in his article on the Senate cafeteria workers. "And it is symbolic of a far bigger fight that can no longer be shirked."