“I often had to skip meals”: Senate Dining Room Workers Want a Union, Say They’re Living in Poverty

Bruce Vail

(scrumshus / Wikimedia Commons)

Elected members of the U.S. Senate don’t have to look very far to see fresh signs of the national Fight For $15 movement: It’s made its way from the McDonald’s hamburger joints back home to their own cozy Capitol Hill dining room.

The cooks and waiters working for a catering company that operates the Senate restaurant are speaking up for better wages and the right to unionize, even as they serve up luxurious meals to well-paid politicians and their well-heeled guests, say labor activists in Washington, D.C. Their efforts have persuaded some 34 members of the Senate to support the campaign, and are once again highlighting the need for the federal government to clean its own house and raise labor standards for its own contract employees.

We’re looking for a minimum wage of $15 and a union,” says John Holbrook, one of about 90 food service workers employed at Senate office buildings by Restaurant Associates, a catering company based in New York. They also want to be represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ, a large local that is best known for representing building services workers in cities on the East Coast.

Restaurant Associates has been resisting these demands, according to Paco Fabian, a spokesman for the union advocacy group Good Jobs Nation, even though the company is already partially unionized. Food service workers on the other side of Capitol Hill in the dining rooms of the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, have long been organized as members of UNITE HERE Local 23. Other Restaurant Associates catering contracts employ UNITE HERE members, and the company’s parent corporation, U.K.-based multinational Compass Group is partly unionized in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

The company rejected the criticism in a November 16 letter from Restaurant Associates President Dick Cattani to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who has championed the cause of the workers. Cattani wrote:

The workers of the Senate Dining Room have every right to organize if they so choose. An organizing effort by the SEIU three years ago was rejected by 68 percent of those voting.

If the SEIU believes it has the necessary support to organize in the Senate Dining Room, we believe the best course would be to follow the usual procedure of asking the [National Labor Relations Board] to hold an election.

Fabian didn’t dispute anything in Cattani’s letter but stressed that the previous election was three years ago, and that the new organizing drive has recruited a majority of the current employees. The workers want voluntary recognition of the union, he says, and 34 Senators (all Democrats) have signed a letter asking Restaurant Associate to extend recognition without requiring a NLRB-supervised vote. Such votes are widely thought to benefit employers rather than workers, giving the former ample opportunities to convince workers not to join the union.

A key demand will be a minimum wage of $15 an hour, Holbrook says. Washington is an increasingly expensive place to live, he explains, and the Senate schedule of frequent vacations and days off means that many Senate dining room workers struggle to get enough hours to earn a living wage.

Union supporter James Powell, a chef, wrote a plea to the senators who control the Restaurants Associate contract:

Most of the senators don’t even realize that the people preparing their meals can’t afford to make ends meet. Many senators are multi-millionaires who not only enjoy fancy meals but also get chauffeured around in black SUVs surrounded by aides who are ready to meet their every need. …

I’ve worked as a Senate chef for 5 years, but I only make $13 an hour. I’m a single father and it’s hard to support my son on a poverty wage. The cost of living in Washington is so expensive that I recently ended up homeless. I lived in an abandoned house for nearly two months. That’s how long it took me to save up enough money to rent a bedroom in an apartment. I often had to skip meals to save money.

Perhaps the lavish lifestyle of our politicians makes it hard for them to understand the challenges of the working poor. The senators I cook for select their dishes and wine pairings from a black leather bound menu, with the seal of the Senate embossed in gold on the cover. Senator Marco Rubio is a fan of the Poached Salmon Nicoise Salad” with haricot verts, capers, egg, tomato, potato, and thyme vinaigrette ($19).

Good Job Nation’s Fabian tells In These Times that workers from the Senate dining room first came to the organization for help early this year because of the high-profile campaigns it has run to boost the wages and working condition for federal contract workers in the Washington area.

One of the most successful was to get union recognition for food service workers at the Smithsonian Institution, another federal government installation that has contracted with Restaurant Associates. Good Jobs Nation also agitated effectively to convince President Barack Obama to sign an executive order establishing $10.10 an hour as a minimum wage for federal contract workers.

There really isn’t any difference between what we have been trying to do at the Smithsonian or the Senate Dining Room or with the higher minimum wage for all contract workers. It’s all one campaign,” concludes Fabian. 

For a limited time:

Donate $20 or more to In These Times and we'll send you a copy of Let This Radicalize You.

In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?

We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.