May 5, 2022

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Quentin Blackman arrived at the union picket in front of the Senate office buildings on Wednesday facing a layoff in less than two weeks. By the time he left, his job was saved. 

The cashier and food service worker on the Senate side of the Capitol came to support his fellow co-workers and heard Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., announce to the crowd that their jobs were safe for now.

“OK,” Blackman said, joining with the cheering crowd. “That’s excellent.”

Lawmakers were able to redirect $3.75 million in already-appropriated pandemic funding to keep 81 workers who had received layoff notices last week on the payroll, according to a Senate Democratic aide. 

Previous relief funding had staved off layoffs while the pandemic turned the Capitol into a ghost town, but that ran out.

The new money provides a reprieve for the workers on the same day the union announced it had reached a deal with contractor Restaurant Associates, which runs food service for the Senate and the Capitol Visitor Center. The agreement includes a $5.60 raise for workers, a company-funded pension and access to a platinum health care plan, which would have a monthly cost of $30 for a single person and $80 to cover a family. But it came with a huge caveat. The company would do that only if the Senate shouldered some of the costs, said union spokeswoman Diana Hussein. 

The Senate’s current contract with Restaurant Associates is managed by the Architect of the Capitol and goes through December 2022, according to spokeswoman Christine Leonard. The union has called on Restaurant Associates and the AOC to rejigger the contract and shift to a fee-for-service model that would be more transparent.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, chairwoman of the Committee on Rules and Administration, which has jurisdiction over the Capitol complex, said she hopes the eateries there will once again become crowded as the pandemic wanes and the buildings begin to reopen to tourists. The way the current contract is structured has made it difficult to get a complete picture of the business, she told reporters. 

During the demonstration, chants of “union power” and “sí se puede” could be heard echoing off the face of the Senate office buildings, and dining workers wore red shirts with “Unite Here” in white letters. The workers marched in a tight circle with union organizers and Democratic lawmakers.

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Senate cafeteria workers rally for job security and better wages and benefits on Wednesday, as the immediate threat of layoffs appeared to recede. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The list of Senate Democrats who attended included Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Klobuchar of Minnesota. 

When Brown spoke to the workers, who endured a punishing two years that included a pandemic and violent insurrection at their workplace on Jan. 6, he told the crowd how much he valued them. 

The day of the attack on the Capitol, workers delivered meals to lawmakers and other staff who were hiding in Senate office buildings. 

“They may treat you like you’re expendable, but you are essential workers,” Brown said. “You need to be treated that way.”

The averted layoffs come during a period of change for the workers. A majority agreed to unionize with UNITE HERE Local 23 late last year, and Restaurant Associates voluntarily recognized the union in November. But the parties are still working to hammer out an agreement. 

Brown had sought to energize his fellow lawmakers by sending a letter to Senate leadership. Signed by 17 other Democrats, the letter called for funding to keep the dining workers on the payroll to be included in a $10 billion pandemic aid bill currently in the works. That package did not include any such funding for dining workers, and has been shelved until after the two-week Easter recess.

Though the money didn’t ultimately come from the aid package, Brown said the fight is not over. Just keeping layoffs from happening is not enough, he said, and the time is now for workers to push for better working conditions, even if it takes a while. 

“I don’t care about the process,” he said. “I just care that we deliver, and, we’re gonna keep fighting for it until we do.”

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