Cafeteria workers employed in the U.S. Senate have spent the last several months agitating for higher wages and union representation, taking part in strikes and protests to highlight their demands. Now a group of senators have joined their cause.
In a letter sent Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and 33 Democrats asked that Compass Group, the company that provides food services in the Capitol, voluntarily recognize a union for the workers if a majority of them ask for one. What the senators appear to be calling for is commonly known as "card check" -- an arrangement that allows workers to avoid a secret-ballot union election, as well as any attendant pressure from management to vote against the union.
"Employees working full time in the U.S. Senate should not be living in poverty," the letter says. "Yet with the cost of living in the Washington metropolitan area among the highest in the United States, there have been numerous reports of Senate cafeteria workers forced to take a second job, rely on public assistance programs, and in at least one instance, into homelessness."
The lawmakers accused the company of having "resisted" the workers' desire to unionize, noting charges of unfair labor practices that have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
"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 continues.
The U.K.-based Compass Group is the largest foodservice company in the world by revenue, ahead of other giants such as Aramark and Sodexo. The workers in the Senate are employed by Restaurant Associates, a Compass Group subsidiary. In a letter penned in response to the one from the senators, Dick Cattani, CEO of Restaurant Associates, said the workers have the right to unionize if they choose. Cattani noted that an effort led by the Service Employees International Union three years ago failed in a vote.
"Wherever we operate, we comply with labor laws and would not tolerate intimidation or coercive tactics by our managers," Cattani wrote. "We do not believe there has been any attempt to intimidate workers in the Senate Dining Room."
Cattani added that the company believed workers should have to vote in a secret-ballot election, as opposed to card check.
Many of the Senate cafeteria workers are affiliated with a group called Good Jobs Nation, which has been organizing food workers at federal properties in and around the nation's capital. Good Jobs Nation is funded by the SEIU. That's the same union that has spearheaded the Fight for $15 campaign, which has coordinated worker strikes and called for a $15 minimum wage and union representation in fast food.
On Tuesday, Senate cafeteria staffers hosted a protest on Capitol grounds that was part of the Fight for $15's nationwide demonstrations. The protest included a speech from Sanders, who's running for the Democratic presidential nomination and penned Friday's letter.
"What you are doing and workers all over the United States are doing, you are having a profound impact,” Sanders told the workers. “People are raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. And you know who started it? You did. You started the movement."
This post has been updated with excerpts from Cattani's letter.