Workers who serve food at the United States Capitol went on strike Tuesday morning to protest their low wages and call attention to retaliatory actions they say their employer has taken against workers who want to unionize.
That company, Restaurant Associates, holds the federal contract to operate the cafeterias in the Capitol Visitors Center and in the Senate itself. The government contracts out janitorial and food service work at many public buildings, paying taxpayer money to private companies rather than employing service workers directly.
These contracts make a handful of corporate executives wealthy but leave far larger numbers of frontline workers destitute. One federal contract employee is picking up shifts at a strip club to make ends meet for her family because her day job pays so little. Another is homeless. Others have described the personal toll of feeding and cleaning up after some of the most powerful people in the country while earning too little money to ensure their own dignity and security when off the clock.
While President Obama has issued an executive order mandating that future federal contracts will ensure workers get paid at least $10.10 per hour, existing contracts without such a clause remain in effect — and workers are targeting a $15 hourly wage anyhow.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) plans to join the strikers outside a Senate office building for a press conference around mid-morning. It will be the third time in recent weeks that a sitting senator has expressed direct, in-person support for the workers’ efforts, which date back over two years now. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) recently joined an informal boycott of the Senate cafeteria organized by Senate aides, as did Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
Workers are planning acts of civil disobedience to follow the rally with Sanders, a press release from the organizers of Tuesday’s strike notes. The scope of that resistance remains to be seen, but the avowed willingness to risk arrest as part of their push for higher wages and union rights echoes the gradual escalation of the nationwide “Fight for $15” campaign. Members of that low-wage worker organizing effort voted over a year ago to begin incorporating such acts of peaceful resistance into their strikes and marches. Scores of fast food workers were arrested outside McDonald’s headquarters in Illinois in May of last year. Fast food workers in 270 cities are also striking today, in what they say is their largest action yet.
Restaurant Associates is a multi-billion-dollar company. It is owned by a British firm called the Compass Group, which reported profits of roughly $1.3 billion in 2014 on about $25.7 billion in revenue. The conglomerate’s contract with the Capitol buildings is set to expire on December 1, though negotiations to renew it have reportedly been going on for months.