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Fresh off big Senate wins, Unite Here leader thinks even bigger

Jim Saksa, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Business News

“It was a graveyard before the union,” Malcom McCombs said as his Senate cafeteria colleagues nodded.

McCombs was seated in a corner of the cafeteria in the Dirksen Building basement with four other members of Unite Here Local 23, talking about what’s changed since his workplace organized and reached a collective bargaining agreement last year.

“Now it’s fun to come to work,” said McCombs. “People are smiling.”

He looked across the table at D. Taylor, international president of the 300,000-member union of culinary and casino workers. Based in Las Vegas, Taylor was in Washington to meet with lawmakers — particularly Democrats who should be thankful for his union’s help winning Senate races in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona and potentially Georgia.

But he was also here to listen to frontline workers like McCombs and Thomas Jones, who described what a difference it has made getting health insurance through work. “I’m a diabetic,” Jones said. “Before I had to go outside the job to pay for insulin. It’s helped me out a lot.”

Better pay has made a major difference to his family, said McCombs, turning serious. It allowed him to quit his second job, which meant he was home a few weeks ago when he noticed his daughter’s phone lighting up with texts from names he didn’t recognize. His daughter said they were other teenagers she’d met through social media, but McCombs did some digging and found out they were adults lying about their ages. “If I was still working the other job, I would’ve missed that,” he said.

 

The group chatted about what’s next, including shop steward training and traveling to battleground states in future elections to get out the vote. It’s been a year since Senate cafeteria workers voted to unionize, and they’ve been busy. They still faced the threat of layoffs up until a collective bargaining agreement was finalized in October.

Rarely have labor issues hit so close to home on the Hill. The Senate cafeteria workers are employed by outside contractor Restaurant Associates, but they feed hungry powerbrokers at the Capitol. A few Democratic senators showed up as allies in the recent fight, even appearing on the picket lines. Meanwhile, lawmakers on the House side have seen some of their office staffers vote to form unions of their own.

For Taylor, being in Washington is a chance to see that convergence in action. The Capitol is both a workplace in its own right — and the place where decisions get made that affect workers all across the country.

Attainable goals

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