WASHINGTON — Almost three years ago, President Donald Trump nominated Brett Blanton to head the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the agency that manages the Capitol Complex.
A year later, Democrats took control of both the House and Senate, but Blanton has remained largely avoided scrutiny in Congress— though he is under investigation by the Justice Department for misusing government property, specifically his white government-assigned Ford Explorer.
On Thursday, Blanton’s chief of staff was confronted by Senate cafeteria workers demanding to negotiate their employment and benefits contracts.
“This is our lives. This is urgent. We can’t wait,” a cafeteria worker pleaded with Blanton, according to their union, Local 23.
Blanton’s office told the workers they had to make an appointment. The workers didn’t take the bait.
“Look, we been down that road before,” said a worker, who was not present at the unscheduled collective bargaining session in the architect’s office just off the Capitol Dome on Thursday, about the responsiveness Blanton’s team has shown workers in the past.
“These motherf—ers have been giving us the runaround,” said the worker, who declined to be named for fear of retribution by his employer, Restaurant Associates, or Blanton. “We’re tired of telling our families that we’re getting laid off. Then when they tell us we can keep our jobs —they won’t say for how long— before the next bulls–t layoff letter comes.”
Since the first layoffs were announced, then canceled, in April, a lingering suspicion has surfaced among the Senate cafeteria workers that the $3.75 million Blanton told a group of Democratic Senators would keep the workers in their jobs through September has been misspent.
“They keep saying we don’t have enough customers, but how is that even possible?” a cafeteria worker told Latino Rebels on Monday, just after a new round of layoffs were announced by Restaurant Associates, surprising the workers and senators alike.
Customers have returned to the Senate cafeteria since Congress agreed in February to begin lifting pandemic restrictions.
In March, guided tours resumed after two years of pandemic shutdown. By April, the Senate Dirksen Cafeteria was packed with tour groups, lobbyists, staffers, and other Capitol workers who lunch there every day.
As business boomed, Restaurant Associates cut shifts, according to nine cafeteria workers who spoke with Latino Rebels. Meanwhile, Blanton’s team told Restaurant Associates that his office lacked sufficient funds to cover the hefty invoices the company was billing the government.
“They bought new equipment for the cafeteria and over-purchased everything while they were cutting our shifts,” said a cafeteria worker. “We kept telling HR the money the senators gave Restaurant Associates in April was for us, the employees.”
The latest round of layoffs announced by Restaurant Associates on Monday was canceled Thursday. The announcement came just before a Local 23 rally outside the cafeteria where workers —along with Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI)— were arrested in acts of civil disobedience.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) attended the rally but left before the police showed up to arrest cafeteria workers for blocking traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the Senate tunnels beneath the Capitol Complex, cafeteria workers pleaded with lawmakers to save their jobs. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) listened intently for several minutes to a Senate kitchen worker pleading for job security.
“The senator told me he loves my food,” the worker told Latino Rebels afterward. “And he ain’t the only one. Senators love what I can do in that kitchen.”
Before the layoffs were canceled, workers who received notices were told they could relocate to another Restaurant Associates-run cafeteria at George Washington University. It’s unclear how many of the 38 workers who received layoff notices accepted the company’s offer, but some who did were told that they could not return to their jobs at the Capitol when the layoffs were canceled but would have to reapply and take a pay cut to come back.
As of late Friday, some of the workers with layoff notices had not been told by Restaurant Associates that the layoffs were canceled, despite Sen. Sanders and Rep. Bush confirming the good news to them at Thursday’s rally.
Latino Rebels can confirm that Senate staffers from at least a dozen offices are aware of the cafeteria workers’ complaints against Restaurant Associates. The Senate Rules Committee, led by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), has jurisdiction over the AOC—and thus the Senate Cafeteria. So does the Senate Appropriations Committee, according to Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI).
What’s less clear is who can fire Blanton, the architect who has overseen a cafeteria workforce traumatized by constant job insecurity caused by a series of forestalled layoffs.
“Blanton is an unelected Trump appointee under investigation for the DOJ,” said a Local 23 official helping to negotiate a new contract between Restaurant Associates and Blanton’s office. “The AOC has been an incredibly bad actor in all of this. It’s on the AOC at this point to get it done.”
Pablo Manríquez is the Capitol Hill correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports