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Senate workers win raise in new contract — but not quite ‘$15 and a union’

By Mike DeBonis, The Washington Post

The blue-collar workers who serve meals to U.S. senators, their staff and Capitol visitors have won a significant increase in wages under a new contract that took effect Monday.

The agreement with Restaurant Associates, the private contractor that operates the Senate’s cafeteria, private dining room and other facilities, stands to help raise the living standards for dozens of workers. Many of them have been living on the edge of poverty, and the story of Charles Gladden, who was homeless and living outside a downtown Metro stop while working as a Senate custodian, pushed their plight into the national spotlight.

The new contract, however, falls short of the demands made by labor activists, who called for a $15 minimum wage and the automatic recognition of a union organizing petition.

Still, the gains in the new contract are considerable and will put Senate workers on par with blue-collar employees elsewhere in the Capitol complex. The average wage for the roughly 115 hourly workers covered under the new contract will go from about $13 an hour to about $14.50 an hour, according to Senate officials familiar with its terms.

New hires had been making D.C. minimum wage of $10.50 under the old contract. Under the new contract, the minimum starting wage for most workers is $13.30, and those in a few jobs, including cooks, will start higher.

The fringe benefits paid to the workers, which can be used for health, transportation or retirement, have increased as well — a roughly 5 percent bump to $4.27 an hour — though that provision was tied to the federal Service Contract Act rather than directly to the negotiation.

The new contract was signed Thursday after months of outside involvement — not only from labor activists, including the Service Employees International Union, which has been seeking to organize the workers, but also from Democratic senators who lobbied quietly for improvements seven years after a Democratic Senate voted to privatize the chamber’s food service operations. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Senate Democrats, appeared at two Capitol Hill rallies for the workers.

The new contract does not include any changes on the subject of union organizing. While House food workers have been unionized since those services were privatized in the mid-1980s, Senate workers have not formed a union.

Change to Win, a labor alliance that includes SEIU, has pushed Restaurant Associates and the Senate to voluntarily recognize a union without requiring a formal election. Workers voted down an organizing drive in 2012, and Restaurant Associates has not agreed to recognize subsequent organizing efforts.

Change to Win has ramped up a new organizing push in recent months, and has filed a series of complaints against Restaurant Associates alleging threats of retaliation against workers who have participated in the protests and union drive.

That means the protests are probably not going to be over entirely, though advocates concede that the new contract is a step in the right direction. “But workers won’t stop fighting until they get a voice on the job,” said Paco Fabián, a spokesman for Change to Win’s Good Jobs Nation campaign.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees Capitol campus matters and signed off on the new contract, thanked the parties involved for getting the job done. “I am thankful for the employees that do so much for the Senate day in and day out, and I am glad their concerns were heard and taken into consideration in the new contract,” Blunt said.