Senate cooks go on strike, highlighting issues with privatized public services

Bertrand Olotara is a cook employed by the federal contractor that operates the Senate cafeteria, Compass Group. Yesterday, he announced in The Guardian the he and his coworkers are going on strike. Compass Group pays him $12 an hour to live and work in Washington, D.C., and that is not a living wage:

I had to take a second job at a grocery store to make ends meet. But even though I work seven days a week – putting in 70 hours between my two jobs – I can’t manage to pay the rent, buy school supplies for my kids or even put food on the table. I hate to admit it, but I have to use food stamps so that my kids don’t go to bed hungry.

Now, before anyone raises their hand to say that $12 an hour ain’t bad — after all, it’s well-above the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and more than the $10.10 that President Obama has mandated federal contractors pay their employees — remember that the same conservatives who oppose raising the minimum wage are the ones who are quick to point out that tweaking the tax rate on the top 1 percent isn’t fair. Because 1 percenters live in major metropolitan areas like New York and Washington, where the cost of living is so high that $250,000 a year isn’t actually all that rich. If these HENRYs (High Earner, Not Yet Rich) have it so bad, imagine how hard it must be for Olotara.

Or Charles Gladden, who puts in more than eight hours a day at the Senate cafeteria and is currently homeless.

In Washington, D.C., cost of living is high to the point at which $12 and hour, and another part-time job on top of that, isn’t enough to support a family. And, as I and others have noted recently, when wages aren’t high enough to support workers’ most basic needs, the government steps in to pick up the slack.

And I thought conservatives were against socialized labor.

Going beyond the wage issue, however, the Senate cafeteria strike raises the less-covered question of why in the world the United States government is contracting labor out to a foreign company (Compass Group is based in the United Kingdom) that doesn’t pay living wages and doesn’t allow its workers the right to collectively bargain.

In short, decades of underfunded government — not government programs, but government itself — have taken quite a toll.

No one thinks about what kind of computers the EPA uses, or whether Congress has independent staff researching the bills they propose, or whether the people who serve Senators lunch can feed their own families when they get home. In an era of budgetary antipathy toward the federal government, voters have set incentives for Congress to cut first and ask questions later — if at all.

This has led to a government that increasingly relies on “public-private partnerships” — in which private companies are hired to do the work we’d normally expect the government to take care of. This can range from serving lunch to fighting wars. The Senate cafeteria, for example, was privatized in 2008. In shifting money off of the bureaucracy’s balance sheet and into the private sector, Congress is able to shave off some spending that would otherwise be lumped in with what the voters feel is unnecessary government excess. If you’re wondering why the federal government doesn’t pay its interns, there’s a big part (although not all) of the reason.

The executive branch can barely get room in its budget for buying paper. From senior staffers to the janitors, no one is paid what they’re worth. This has contributed to a brain drain in the federal government, in which our best and brightest graduates choose “financial security” over public service, and it’s also led to a world in which the Senate cafeteria has been turned into a reverse soup kitchen, with the homeless working for the well-off.

Regardless as to which line items they fall under under, the American people pay for basic government functions. And while many aren’t fully aware of it, we get what we (don’t) pay for. We don’t get to cheer on freezing or cutting pay for federal workers, and eliminating offices that conduct internal research and review, if we then turn around and complain that our government doesn’t work. Successful businesses invest in themselves. It’s time we did the same.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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