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Meet The Workers Who Serve The Country’s Leaders But Still Live In Poverty

Low-wage contract workers participate in a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MOLLY RILEY
Low-wage contract workers participate in a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MOLLY RILEY

The people who work at the U.S. Capitol and Senate went on strike on Tuesday to protest their latest contract.

The contractors, who work in the cafeterias and clean the buildings, say they were shut out of talks between Republican Senators and federal contractor organizations handling the renewal process. The new contract went into effect on Monday, according to their group’s press release, and failed to include the living wage of $15 an hour or union rights that they have been demanding for years.

Cooks, janitors, and other federal contract workers started the strike at noon in the Dirksen Building cafeteria, most of them wearing red Santa hats and bright blue “Strike!” shirts. They gathered peacefully in the crowded room, then traveled to the Russell Building rotunda and headed to storm Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) office.

Workers on strike in the Dirken Senate Building Cafeteria on Dec. 12, 2015 CREDIT: Jess Colarossi
Workers on strike in the Dirken Senate Building Cafeteria on Dec. 12, 2015 CREDIT: Jess Colarossi

One of the workers on strike, Bertrand Olotara, has been a cook in the Dirksen Senate Building for two years. The single father of five kids has two bachelors degrees, one in private law and one in international business administration. Currently, he works two jobs, 70 hours a week, seven days a week. He told ThinkProgress that he gets about a 30 cent wage increase every year.  “I’m here today because we are fighting for $15 an hour, a union, and benefits. But really, we are asking for justice and equality,” he said.

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He also explained that they’re targeting Cruz because the Republican presidential candidate recently said he is “for the workers.” Cruz has not outright said he supports increasing the minimum wage, but he has not expressed as much opposition as other Republican presidential candidates have. Last January, Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul all said they considered “the increasing gap between rich and poor” to be a problem, according to the New York Times. But Cruz has said that he is against government intervening with this economic crisis, saying “it exacerbates income inequality.”

“We are coming here and letting him know we are still waiting. We are here and will fight until we get what we need,“ Olotara said. “I keep fighting, if not for me, then for the next generation.”

Workers on strike and organizers, outside of the Russell Senate Office Building on Dec. 12, 2015 CREDIT: Jess Colarossi
Workers on strike and organizers, outside of the Russell Senate Office Building on Dec. 12, 2015 CREDIT: Jess Colarossi

Another worker on strike, Warner Massey, has done maintenance in the Senate buildings and the Capitol for over a year. After the strike, he was planning to go to an interview for another part-time job.

“This is a real nice place to work in a prestigious building, but it’s been rough during the year. I would like for us to be treated fairly and get more money, so when we sleep at night we feel good about our work,” he said. “Fifteen dollars and a union would help. I wouldn’t have to go find another job.”

This is not the first time federal contract workers have gone on strike. The fight has been going on for over two years, and just last month Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined strikers outside of a Senate office building to express his solidarity. He and 33 other Democrats sent a letter to the Compass Group, a British-based federal contractor conglomerate that manages the workers and provides food services in the Capitol, demanding that they voluntarily recognize a union for the workers if a majority of them ask for one.

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“The most important people work in this building and they have the power to make the change,” said Ricardo Gallardo, organizer for Good Job Nation, which is the organization working with low-wage federal contract workers in their fight for higher pay. “Most presidential candidates are not talking about income inequality, especially the republicans. [Republican Senators] here are more concerned about Obamacare and Hilary Clinton problems instead, so they don’t hear the people who are suffering every day.”

During the strike, national faith leaders also released a letter to Richard John Cousins, the CEO of The Compass Group. Faith leaders Rev. Aundreia R. Alexander of the Ecumencial Poverty Initiative, Rev. D. J. Herbet Nelson of the U.S. Presbyterian Church, and Rev. Sekinah Hamlin of the National Council of the Churches of Christ offered to mediate a peaceful resolution between workers and management and also said a prayer for the workers outside Cruz’s office.

“We see people leaving work from the government and going to night shelters in order to live. It’s a shame and a disgrace. People of faith have to have something to say about this, because that should not be the case in this nation,” said Rev. Dr. Nelson.

Rev. Hamlin also added that they have been there for the workers who have spoken up for themselves in the past and then lost their jobs. They have helped workers ask managers to give them their jobs back, and they have supported them through the first half of the contract renegotiation process. “And we will continue to be with them,” Rev. Hamlin said. The faith leaders were also present when the Pope met with low-wage workers in Washington, D.C.

“It goes way beyond Obama’s executive order. We have stood strong, and we will continue to stand. Because people are still homeless, people are still without food,” said Rev. Hamlin.

The letter stated that they believe that there is “inherent dignity in work,” and these workers deserve to voice their opinions during negotiating contract provisions. They called for the Compass Group to remove all obstacles currently blocking their freedom to unionize to support one another.

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“It takes them just to do it. This is not hard. They are serving people who are making phenomenal amounts of money,” said Rev. Alexander. “This is a matter of justice, to be paid $15 an hour and have a union. All it takes is a prick of the consciousness and willingness.”