Senate Cafeteria Workers Organize Against Union

Mar 31, 2022
1:04 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — At least two senators were accosted at lunchtime on Wednesday by Capitol cafeteria workers demanding answers to what they say has been a heavy-handed unionization push by Local 23, which represents over 25,000 hospitality workers in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

“It’s a mafia,” an immigrant cashier told Latino Rebels. “They come to our homes.”

“Multiple times!” added a worker from Central America. “My brother was sick. I told them, ‘I’m in pain right now. I cannot receive you. You don’t have to come to my house anymore.’ I told them through the glass, ‘If you keep coming, I’m gonna call the police and tell them you’re harassing me.'”

Union officials say a majority of cafeteria workers have signed union cards to allow them to collectively bargain on their behalf, but many of the workers beg to differ.

On Tuesday, Latino Rebels spoke with nine workers on the condition of anonymity —all workers of color, and all but one are immigrants—in the back room of the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria, where hundreds of Hill staffers, support workers, and outside guests buy their meals every day.

The workers were circulating a petition in English and Spanish. “We, the employees of Restaurant Associates,” the petition read, “do not agree with the union, we want to be taken into account before the company makes a decision that affects us. Sincerely, Senate Cafeteria staff.”

The petition had 24 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

Midway through the interview with Latino Rebels, a Latino kitchen worker approached the table. “Have you signed the petition?” asked the Central American cashier in Spanish.

“No,” the kitchen worker said.

“Well, do you want to be part of the union?”

“The truth is,” he replied, “I’ve had a bad experience with a union in the past.”

“Well, here you go,” said the cashier, sliding the petition across the table.

“I don’t read very well,” said the kitchen worker, blushing.

“No problem,” said the cashier, and began reading the petition aloud.

“OK, I’ll sign.”

With that, the anti-union petition had its 25th signature.

The workers cheered as their colleague made his mark on the petition, then continued telling Latino Rebels their horror stories as employees of Restaurant Associates, the contractor that runs the Senate cafeterias.

The New York-based company describes itself as “the nation’s premier hospitality company, operating [in] over 160 prestigious locations” in “Boston, Hartford, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Toronto.” The company was named one of the “Best Places to Work” in 2021 by Glassdoor, which allows former and current employees to anonymously review companies.

But such high praise doesn’t jive with the complaints that Capitol cafeteria workers shared with Latino Rebels. One immigrant worker from the Caribbean spoke of being forced to clock in after undergoing a double mastectomy.

“She was still draining,” an African immigrant coworker confirmed. “Her wounds were open so she couldn’t drive. A supervisor came and picked her up and drove her all the way here just so she could clock in.”

Another immigrant cafeteria worker said that Restaurant Associates withheld her pay —a common occurrence, according to several of the immigrant workers in the Senate cafeteria workforce— while she was on maternity leave.

“I still haven’t got my money,” said the Latina, adding, “but at least I still have my job.”

At least one worker is said to have moonlighted as a stripper to make ends meet after the company cut her wages.

Despite their hardships as employees of Restaurant Associates, the cafeteria workers remain highly skeptical of the union.

“What can a union do for me that I can’t do for myself?” asked a cashier. “I see the senators every day. They’ve always been good to us. When we ask for help they are there for us. Why do we need a union?”

“We’re not sure,” said Restaurant Associates COO Michael Gallagher when asked for comment on the union push in the Senate cafeteria.

In 2015, after a series of worker walkouts and letters from senators demanding better working conditions and higher pay for cafeteria staff, workers negotiated a seven-year contract with Restaurant Associates, which raised the minimum wage for cafeteria workers from $11.50 to $14.50 per hour.

By Wednesday afternoon, the number of cafeteria workers on the anti-union petition had nearly doubled to 45 signatures.

“Restaurant Associates is not perfect,” said a cashier. “We’ve had a lot of problems with them. But what will happen if we unionize? No one can answer that question for me.”

The cashier’s inquiry seems to have come too late to stop the unionization of the cafeteria workforce, which numbers around 140 employees spread across the Senate and the Capitol Visitors Center, according to a union representative.

“I thought the Restaurant Associates workers already unionized about six months ago,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). “Some of them are not happy about it, but they did it with a card check process where over 50 percent of them signed a union card.”

A spokesperson for Local 23 confirmed to Latino Rebels that they had gotten over half of the cafeteria workforce to sign union cards between July and November of last year. Asked how they had gotten the home addresses of cafeteria workers, the union spokesperson said that Restaurant Associates had provided them.

“They swore to me that that was not the case,” said one cafeteria worker who witnesses say confronted a Restaurant Associates manager about being approached after hours at her home by union officials. “I asked them. They said they would never give away that information. Then they told us it was publicly available because we are federal subcontractors. I said, ‘Where? Show me.’ I Google. My home address is not public information.”

Local 23 officials tell Latino Rebels they are now in contract negotiations with Restaurant Associates over maternity leave, sick leave, pensions, job security, recall issues for workers returning after pandemic furloughs, and other worker benefits.

Meanwhile, the workers, many of whom remain unaware that they are now union members, continue to demand answers.

“Bernie Sanders’ assistant said to email him,” said a cashier from Central America, showing Latino Rebels the assistant’s business card. “And we talked to Sen. Murphy today, too.”

“It is risky for us to talk to senators,” said a kitchen colleague. “Restaurant Associates prohibits us from talking directly to them.”

Latino Rebels approached Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) on Wednesday afternoon for a comment on this story, but the Senator said he was busy with a hearing. We mentioned that the Dirksen cafeteria workers say he is one of their champions in the upper chamber of Congress.

“Oh, do they!” laughed Murphy.

“I get down to the cafeteria fairly often,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when asked the same. “These guys work really hard. They do a good job. They deserve to get good wages and benefits, and the best way to do that is through a union.”


Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports