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Kevin ClarkeAugust 10, 2022
Photo courtesy of Unite Here Local 23Photo courtesy of Unite Here Local 23

The cafeteria workers he was speaking to were preparing for an arm-in-arm street blockade in front of the Dirksen Senate Office Building that would surely end in some arrests. The demonstration was held on July 20, but Brian Jordan, O.F.M., thought a selection from the upcoming Sunday Gospel—Luke 11:9-10—was perfect for his purposes.

     “...ask and you will receive;
     seek and you will find;
     knock and the door will be opened to you.
     For everyone who asks, receives;
     and the one who seeks, finds…”

Father Jordan told the workers: “Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking; Don’t give up.” Their perseverance will be rewarded, he told them. It’s right there in Scripture.

Those workers have been asking for a long time: It took them over seven years to get union membership recognized and then to negotiate a union contract.

The Senate cafeteria workers are not asking for much—just an improved hourly rate and something close to the health insurance abundance enjoyed by the senators they serve each day.

They are not asking for much—just an improved hourly rate that has a chance of catching up to inflation and something close to the health insurance abundance enjoyed by the senators, other members of Congress and staff they serve each day. The tentative contract also includes pension benefits that will mean many of the cafeteria workers will be able to set some money aside for retirement for the first time in their working lives.

After Father Jordan’s exhortation, 17 workers and supporters were arrested for blocking traffic as they called for U.S. senators to support the deal.

Father Jordan, pastor of St. Camillus in nearby Silver Spring, Md., is part of a fraternity once more vibrant and visible in the U.S. church. He is a labor priest, following a personal invitation to take on that role 40 years ago from the great mentor of generations of American labor priests, the late Monsignor George Higgins.

He conjoined his vocation as a Franciscan with a union movement that in its heyday helped create the American middle class, defining wage and benefit standards most contemporary workers take for granted. Father Jordan sees his contemporary work with Local 23 as firmly in the Franciscan tradition. Franciscans were spiritual guides for the labor guilds from the 13th to the 15th century—blacksmiths, carpenters, masons and the like, he explains. Those guilds “laid the foundation stones of labor unions as we know them now.”

In the footsteps of that legacy, a contemporary labor priest “is someone who helps deal with the needs of a particular local, a particular union, whatever their spiritual needs, their sacramental needs,” he said. A lot of the union members he counsels and supports now, he added, are not even Catholic. “They just want someone they can talk to.”

Father Jordan sees his work with Local 23 as firmly in the Franciscan tradition. Franciscans were spiritual guides for the labor guilds from the 13th to the 15th century—blacksmiths, carpenters, masons.

Father Jordan has been chaplain to workers in the New York building trades and firefighters in the F.D.N.Y., but in recent years he has been collaborating with Unite Here Local 23 in its efforts to organize workers in the service industry. He views this largely immigrant, sometimes undocumented workforce as particularly vulnerable to exploitation by employers.

Now he stands with these cafeteria workers taking their campaign to the U.S. Senate. The workers seek to confirm a contract Local 23 negotiated with the vendor that provides food services at Dirksen, Restaurant Associates, a “premium food and guest services” subsidiary of the U.K. conglomerate Compass Group. Restaurant Associates took over the in-house operation of the Senate cafeteria in 2008.

So what’s the hold-up that has driven these workers to a street blockade outside a venerable Washington landmark? That question begins a somewhat convoluted saga of its own. Union organizers point to the offices of the Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton, a 2019 Trump administration appointee, as the culprit. The A.O.C. is a federal agency responsible for maintenance and operations at the United States Capitol Campus.

One organizer called the office’s inaction “frustrating.”

“At this point, the more that the senators can continue to pressure the A.O.C. to get this [contract] to the finish line,” she said by email, “the better on all fronts.”

But Christine Leonard, a spokesperson for the agency, said the Architect of the Capitol has no official role to play in contract negotiations between vendors and their employees. Ms. Leonard pointed out that federal law does require certain wage and labor standards from companies that are awarded federal contracts, adding that many of them indeed employ union workers.

“We believe that subcontracted food service jobs can be good jobs provided that the client takes some responsibility for the job quality of the subcontracted workforce.”

“We do care about the people who work at the Capitol and we want people to be treated fairly,” Ms. Leonard said.

A letter dated Aug. 2 from the A.O.C. to an executive at Restaurant Associates reaffirmed “that the government is taking no action that is preventing RA from negotiating in good faith…with the union on a collective bargaining agreement.” The A.O.C. urged Restaurant Associates “to reach a resolution with the union that will allow food service operations to continue without further disruption to the Senate Community.”

Asked for clarity on the situation, a spokesperson for Restaurant Associates issued a statement that mostly highlighted R.A.’s need for the same, explaining that the company was “anxiously awaiting [a] response” after multiple requests to A.O.C. “to get clarification on the services the Architect of the Capitol will require, so we can provide additional clarity to our valued employees.”

While Restaurant Associates seeks more guidance “regarding various directives and confirmation on the future state of our contract,” the spokesperson assured that the company remains “equally committed to fulfilling our bargaining obligations and working with UNITE HERE to reach an agreement as soon as possible.”

Susan Valentine, political director for Unite Here, argued that guidance from the government client is necessary to seal the deal. She said in an email to America: “After a lot of pushing by these workers, the Senate community has taken some responsibility for securing additional funding to make sure these workers can get the union contract with benefits that they deserve, but the A.O.C. is legally the client, and so far [it] has failed to give the company the full picture so they can settle this contract.

“We believe that subcontracted food service jobs can be good jobs provided that the client takes some responsibility for the job quality of the subcontracted workforce,” Ms. Valentine added. “They can’t just say, ‘Isn’t it too bad that these workers who serve public servants don’t have any benefits because these operations aren’t profitable.’”

Older workers like Mr. Cuevas hope to have a “just retirement” someday, too, “after having spent so many years working here.”

While finger-pointing over which party is holding up the contract may continue, David Cuevas, 57, a Senate cafeteria worker, waits in hope and patience for a positive outcome that for the first time in his working life would reward him with union benefits. The father of seven and the grandfather of seven more, a laborer in the United States since leaving his native Mexico in 1990, Mr. Cuevas has worked in the Senate cafeteria since 2005.

“One of the biggest things we’re fighting for is health insurance,” he said in an interview facilitated by an interpreter provided by Local 23. “If you don’t have health insurance that is accessible, given what you earn, then you can’t take care of your health, and many other things depend on that.”

The company offers a plan, but at $400 to $600 a month most of the workers could not afford it. The new contract would bridge that affordability gap.

He is especially happy that a pension benefit is included in the proposed contract. Older workers like him hope to have a “just retirement” someday, too, Mr. Cuevas said, “after having spent so many years working here.”

Having the support of the church through the presence of Father Jordan reminds the workers of Local 23 that they are not alone in this fight, he said. “We know the church has always been really aware of the needs of people who want to make a better situation for themselves in this country,” Mr. Cuevas said. “For us, that support is really important.”

“A labor priest brings the church to the people,” Father Jordan said. “You don’t expect the people to go to you in a building. You go to them; you give them a sense of church.”

“How about the collective behavior of those who are given government concessions?” he asks. Who holds them accountable “for not providing just wage, nor a just contract?”

His presence at the street action in July, he said, seemed to cheer the workers before they began the demonstration that led to the arrests of many of them. He is glad to serve as a stand-in for the church and its teaching on just wages and the dignity of work at such demonstrations.

But as a faithful citizen, Father Jordan is a bit embarrassed to have to take this fight for what he perceives as the bare minimum in justice to the doorstep of the Senate. “How could this be in our nation’s capital?” he asks.

“Right by the U.S. Capitol, right there at the Dirksen Building, right there in sight of the Washington Mall, of the Lincoln Memorial and all these senators and their aides and their chiefs of staff that want a wonderful lunch?

“I’m just outraged.”

He notes another, to his mind, shameful paradox. “I’m pretty sure the feds have done background checks on all these [cafeteria] workers to make sure they weren’t arrested or that they’re not some deranged terrorist,” Father Jordan said. “But who’s doing background checks on the employers to see if they’re providing just wages and benefits?

“How about the collective behavior of those who are given government concessions?” he asks. Who holds them accountable “for not providing just wage, nor a just contract?”

These workers are going up against the Senate and a vendor with international contracts and vast resources at its disposal. “And they’re playing hardball against these working-class people,” Father Jordan said.

“It’s simply not fair.”

You know who believed in fairness for working people? he asks. “Everett Dirksen.” Father Jordan is pretty sure the New Deal-supporting Republican would not approve of arresting workers outside the Senate office building bearing his name.

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