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Serving Up a Raise in the Senate Cafeteria

By Teresa Tritch, The New York Times

In the three years since the Fight for $15 began with walkouts by fast-food workers in New York City, it has been taken up by workers in retail, home care and other low wage fields, by generally liberal cities that have lifted their minimum wages to $15 an hour or closer to it and by the Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.

Now it has been embraced, de facto, by the Republican leadership of the Senate Rules Committee.

The committee oversees a contract between the government and a private-sector company, Restaurant Associates, to run the Senate cafeteria, the Senate private dining room and other eating venues on the Senate side of the Capitol, employing about 115 people.

This month, the committee approved a new contract that includes big raises for the workers, starting with their next paycheck. Under the old terms, new hires made the minimum wage for Washington, D.C., currently $10.50 an hour; under the new terms, the starting wage will be $13.30 for most workers, and higher for those in certain jobs. Existing employees will receive average raises of $3 an hour, which will lift the average hourly wage from $11.50 to $14.50.

That’s not quite $15. But it’s close. And it is better than the $10.10 an hour minimum wage that President Obama arranged for employees of federal contractors, and the $12 an hour that the White House, Hillary Clinton and several congressional Democrats support as a nationwide minimum wage.

In addition, the new contract terms give the workers a roughly 5 percent raise in their fringe-benefit pay, to $4.27 an hour, which helps to cover health care and transportation costs.

The raise — which was graciously approved, with bipartisan support, by the Republican chairman of the Rules committee, Senator Roy Blunt — will move many of the workers from the brink of poverty to a more secure plane.

It is safe to say, however, that it would not have been forthcoming without walkouts and rallies by the workers. Their cause was also boosted by stories in the media that dramatized their plight and by their public appeals for support, including their request for a meeting with Pope Francis during his visit to Washington, D.C. in September. The meeting did not take place, but the workers felt they had been heard when the pope used his speech before Congress to name Dorothy Day, the Catholic labor activist, as one of four Americans to be emulated.

It is also clear that the fight for fair pay and worker dignity is not over. The Senate contract with Restaurant Associates is reviewed every seven years, which is too long to wait for another real raise. The Fight for $15 is also about the right to form unions without undue obstacles. A raise from on high is nice. Bargaining power through a union would be even better.