Privatization Causes Poverty: Senate Cafeteria Workers’ Story Continues

Dave Johnson

Our government has been on a privatization binge for some time. Things that We the People used to just do federally or through state and local governments were closed down and private corporations were hired to do those things instead. This “saved money” because the well-paid public workers were laid off, losing their benefits and seniority, and new workers were hired at the lowest possible wages with few or no benefits.

Of course, this “cost savings” meant that the tax base eroded, the old and replacement workers often had to go on public assistance, property values plunged as the homes of the old workers were foreclosed and the new workers couldn’t afford to buy, schools were strapped as more low-income kids came in, and all the other ways that the transition to a low-wage economy has ended up costing all of us.

But who’s counting?

U.S. Senate Food Service Workers

One privatization story that literally “hits home” is the story of the people who work in the home of our federal government, the U.S. Capitol. In 2008 the U.S. Senate “saved money” by privatizing its food services. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at the time, “There are parts of government that can be run like a business and should be run like businesses.”

So a private corporation was hired, and the existing workers were laid off and replaced (sometimes by the same people) with low-wage, few-benefit workers. That’s what happens when you “run government like a business” because businesses do everything they can to “save money” by paying as little as they can and providing the minimum of services they can. Senate food workers had to try to find second and third jobs, just to get by. Some Senate cafeteria workers are homeless even though they have “jobs.”

After some time of trying to get by on wages that don’t enable people to get by, the new workers decided to start trying to improve their situation. They began trying to organize, engaged in walkouts, tried to get some publicity, filing labor complaints, and eventually won a raise … except it turns out that “being run like a business” meant the business would find ways around meeting their commitments.

Susan Madrak at Blue Nation Review begins the story, in “How A Republican In The White House Will Hurt Workers Like These“:

The Senate food service (which ranges from the formal Senate dining room to the Senate cafeteria and several coffee shops) was privatized in 2008, and lower wages and benefits soon followed.

It got so bad that last year, the workers staged a series of strikes. As you might expect, they attracted a lot of media coverage, and many senators on both sides of the aisle publicly supported the cause. [Including many of the same senators who first perpetuated the idea that all government services should turn a profit, but that’s another story.]

… The legislative agency that handles procurement contracts at the Capitol finally got the company that runs the cafeteria to agree to a new contract giving employees a decent wage. Some workers would see a $5 bump.

Guess what the employer did next.

Susan links to Catherine Rampell, reporting at The Washington Post on what happened next, in “Low-wage Senate workers get a raise — and then the shaft“:

Days after the new contract was signed, a cafeteria manager quietly began calling some workers into his office. He demanded they sign paperwork acknowledging new job titles.

“I’m a cook, and I’ve always been a cook,” said 45-year-old Bertrand Olotara. “Now suddenly he’s telling me I’m a ‘food service worker.’ ”

Same job, different title, and see if you can guess what is coming: the new title means … the pay goes back down.

Privatization – handing government services over to private corporations – “saves money” by forcing people into poverty and onto public assistance, eroding the tax base, forcing local wages and property values down and generally putting all of us further under the thumb of those who have convinced people who “private companies always do everything better than government.” One thing private companies are good at is driving every benefit of our economy upwards to a concentrated and privileged few.

And, Of Course, It’s About Color, Too

Have you ever noticed that almost every story of economic exploitation has a certain “color” to it? Dave Jamieson tells this part of the story at HuffPo, in “The Senate Has Plenty Of Racial Diversity, But Not The Kind You Brag About“:

To a casual observer, the halls of Congress look pretty white. But according to Anthony Thomas, people of color abound there, so long as you know where to find them.

“It’s all black and Hispanic people downstairs,” said Thomas, a 23-year-old African-American from the suburb of New Carrollton, Maryland.

Thomas works as a dishwasher in the Senate cafeteria in the basement of the Dirksen building. His duties include catering special parties held in the Capitol and the Senate office buildings, where lawmakers and staff rub elbows with lobbyists and other power brokers. Though there are exceptions, it’s mostly white people drinking and dining, and people of color like Thomas cleaning up after them, he said.

… The low-wage workers were almost exclusively people of color – a whopping 97 percent, according to a demographic breakdown Good Jobs Nation provided to The Huffington Post (the breakdown did not identify individual workers).

Please take a moment and visit Good Jobs Nation. (On Facebook) (On Twitter).

See also at OurFuture.org:

● “34 Senators Stand With Senate Cafeteria Workers – And With All Workers“:

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.

● “Is Senate Cafeteria Contractor Still Violating Labor Rules?

● “Senate Cafeteria Worker Protests Continue As Sen. Warren Joins

● “Government Contract Workers Strike For Better Pay

● “Federal Workers Demand $15 and a Union

● “Standing In Solidarity With Low-Wage Workers At the U.S. Senate

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