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Why House cafeteria workers are paid better than Senate cafeteria workers

Hint: It has to do with a union.

Rickie Toon has been a cook in the House cafeteria for 30 years and makes a decent living. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

After 30 years of working as a cook in the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria, Rickie Toon, 60, makes about $18 an hour. Over the years he and his wife — who works as a screener for all the mail that enters the Capitol complex — have bought a house, have raised three kids and now even help send a grandson to college. He’s employed by a contractor called Restaurant Associates, but the job is everything one might expect from working for the federal government, with affordable health-care benefits, a pension and little chance of being fired or laid off.

Across the Capitol grounds, it’s a different story for Charles Gladden, the 63-year-old worker in the Senate cafeteria profiled by The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago. He’s also employed by Restaurant Associates and tries to help provide for three kids. But unlike Toon, he’s homeless, because he doesn’t have enough left over to pay for a place to live. Conditions are similar, if not quite as drastic, for the rest of the Senate-side workers who’ve been speaking out lately about their pay — and the challenge of making ends meet when Congress goes into recess and their services are no longer needed.

Why the huge difference between the two food service operations? Well, the House side is unionized and has been for about 20 years. The workers’ contract with Restaurant Associates sets minimum salaries for all staff, from $10.65 for a waiter to $17.45 for an a-la-carte cook, with twice-yearly raises. The union that represents them, Unite Here Local 23, says the average wage is $14.30. (Restaurant Associates declined to comment on wage levels.) They get vacation time and paid sick leave, as well as a feeling of having a voice on the job.

Toon saw the need for a union early on. When he started, back in 1984, the cafeteria workers were all government employees. Toon’s grandmother had been working there even longer than he had — and felt lucky for it. Management kept a well-stocked liquor cabinet that they shared liberally with the staff — Toon’s grandmother favored Johnny Walker Red — and let the staff take home leftovers from the catered meals.

“That was their way of keeping them happy,” Toon says. "They thought it was great, but they weren’t making no money.”

In 1986, the House contracted the work out to a company called Service America. Workers voted to unionize several years later, and Toon says things started to improve.

“After we had the union in here, I was able to stand up as a man, I was able to demand respect from the bosses,” says Toon, who’s now a shop steward. Sitting in the Rayburn dining room after his shift, relaxed in slightly soiled chef’s whites, he greets workers as they filter in and out. “We was able to make more money,” he recalls. Contractors have changed several times since then, but the workers have managed to keep their union benefits.

The story of why the Senate cafeteria isn’t unionized as well, however, is more of a story of union dysfunction.

In recent years, Unite Here Local 23 has organized food service workers in the Smithsonian museums and Nationals Park, adding to the government agencies and universities they’ve had for years. They had been working on the Senate’s dining facilities as well and were set to go public with the campaign about a year ago. But then the Service Employees International Union sued Local 23, accusing it of violating a legal agreement the two unions had struck divvying up the city’s workplaces. Technically, public service employees were supposed to be SEIU’s turf.

“We were told we had to get out by SEIU because it was their jurisdiction,”  says Local 23 President Jim Dupont. So Local 23 backed off. “It’s horrible for those workers. We have to go tell them no. They were so mad at us, and they have the right to be. It’s kind of a silly thing. There are plenty of people to organize.”

Meanwhile, SEIU has been supporting the Good Jobs Nation campaign, which has organized workers on many federal contracts to push the White House for an executive order that would ease unionization across all federal buildings. But SEIU has not been actively working to help the Senate cafeteria workers actually unionize.

“It’s on our radar. We just haven’t gotten there yet,” says Jaime Contreras, director of the Capital Area District for the SEIU affiliate 32BJ. On the action against Local 23, Contreras says that it’s about division of labor -- the point of the agreement was making sure that unions focus on their areas of expertise.

"There are many workers who are seeking to organize to improve their conditions, at airports, in hotels, etc., and unions focus on sectors where they can assist workers to make change and establish higher standards,” he said in a statement. "For that reason, SEIU does not organize non-union hotels because that is where Unite-Here is concentrated.”

For now, that means that Senate cafeteria workers will probably stay at lower wage and benefit levels than their House counterparts. Toon hopes that at some point, some union will improve their lives as Local 23 has improved his.

“I know that they need it, too,” he says. “I think it’s in the cards.”