Workers at the U.S. Capitol building are welcoming Congress back to town with a strike. The employees, who work for contractors that serve food and provide janitorial service at many of D.C.’s landmarks, are demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union.
Low wages make it hard for Tony Brawner to be the kind of father he wants to be. Brawner, 43, has only gotten about 20 cents’ worth of raises in two-and-a-half years at the Capitol Visitors Center, and now earns $11.85 an hour.
Brawner’s teenage son Jalen lives with his grandmother while Brawner spends about $40 a week commuting from an aunt’s home. “I can’t afford for him to stay with me, so for him to be in a better place I have him stay with my mom,” Brawner said. “Keep him where he can go to school, have a good breakfast everyday, that’s the best place for him right now.”
“It hurts me because I can’t wake up in the morning, fix my own son breakfast, get him ready for school. I’ve got to have my mom do that,” he said. “It kind of hurts, as a man. But I’ve got to do the best I can for my son.”
A mixture of pride and frustration slides into the lifelong D.C. resident’s voice when he talks about his work. “I’m a hardworking man. I’m in the United States Capitol Building. This is a great building to work in, in the land of opportunity,” Brawner said. “But unfortunately it’s not, for moms and dads like us that work there. This company makes millions and billions of dollars, and we’re not seeing it.”
That company is called Restaurant Associates. It is owned by the American arm of Compass Group, a British food-service company. The North American arm of the company alone pulled in nearly $13 billion in revenue last year, and the U.K.-based parent corporation reported profits of roughly $675 million last year. Executives at low-wage contractor companies like Restaurant Associates collect about $24 billion a year in pay from taxpayers, according to a 2013 study by Demos. By allowing companies to pay poverty wages to the workers who perform the physical labor underwritten in those contracts, the federal government is effectively the largest creator of low-wage jobs in the country.
Restaurant Associates is just the latest company to be targeted by strikers, and Thursday is the tenth such strike since the spring of 2013. Workers from the Capitol are joining for the first time, but previous strikes have hit Union Station, the Ronald Reagan Building, the Smithsonian, the Pentagon, and other federally-owned properties in and around the District. Those strikes eventually won an executive order from President Obama mandating that federal contractors pay their workers at least $10.10 per hour, but strike organizers encouraged workers to aim higher this winter. They point out that the federal government still employs more low-wage workers than any private company, even McDonald’s and Walmart.
“I’m ready to fight for this, man, because it’s been too long,” Brawner said. $15 an hour is “reasonable, comfortable money for a hardworking citizen. $11.85, that’s nothing. The cheapest apartment in D.C. is about $800,” he said, leaving him with little hope of affording a place for he and Jalen to stay together at his current wage.
Reginald Lewis Sr. shares some measure of Brawner’s fatherly frustrations. He tries to help his youngest daughter Rochell pay for books and tuition at Ohio State University, “but I can’t do too much because I don’t have much to help her with.”
Lewis, 50, has worked in the Capitol Visitors Center cafeteria for about a year, washing dishes, cleaning trays, sculling pots and pans, and mopping floors. “When I started they said we’d make 40 hours a week,” Lewis told ThinkProgress, “but little did we know it’s seasonal. The hours can vary, from 40 one week to 30 to some employees get just 20 hours a week.”
Lewis rents an apartment in Maryland for nearly $900 a month, spends $14 each day commuting into D.C. to get to work, and pays more than $150 a month for health insurance through Restaurant Associates, the company the federal government hired to provide food service at the visitors center. At $12 an hour, Lewis’ irregular schedule leaves him struggling to cover his expenses.
“We’re not bringing home that much to live off of. You’re just living for insurance,” Lewis said, adding that he has applied for food stamps to make ends meet. “You’re barely making enough to get to work. Holidays come around, you want to get a little something for your kids, for yourself, you want to be happy,” he said, “but you’re just working day to day with nothing to show for it.”
The first strikes by federal contract workers, at the Reagan Building, were initially punished with retaliatory firings. The company eventually relented and took the worker activists back, but it was a reminder that workers are sticking their necks out.
Like Brawner, Lewis is realistic about the risks of challenging his employer head-on without being dissuaded by them. “We might be a little nervous, but then you see beyond the nervousness, the purpose of it,” Lewis said. “More money, more equality, better homes, better jobs. The American Dream. Nervousness, yes, but the cause is worth it.”
“All the people that come to help us and support us, it gives us courage. That overcomes the fear.”