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Union for food workers at Catholic University and other Washington landmarks wins new contract with Compass Group USA

The Washington campus of The Catholic University of America is shown May 18, 2020. Cafeteria workers at Catholic University in Washington have ended their picket and secured a collective bargaining agreement the union said is good for their families. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Chaz Muth)

Following extended negotiations, more than 1,000 food service workers in the nation’s capital — including those at The Catholic University of America in Washington — have successfully ratified a new contract with Compass Group USA that gives them an immediate $3 hourly raise and increases their hourly wage $8 by 2027.

Unite Here Local 23, the labor union representing the employees, said in a statement that, additionally, health care for individuals will be free by 2026 and all workers will now be eligible for four weeks’ paid parental leave.

Additional Washington locations impacted include other universities, museums and the World Bank headquarters.

“I am so proud of Compass workers in this city,” Unite Here Local 23 president Marlene Patrick-Cooper said in a June 27 statement. “They have done two things: won life-changing raises, affordable healthcare, and so much more for their families, but also set the new standard for what a good hospitality job looks like in D.C. We said workers who serve the elite shouldn’t be on the edge of poverty themselves, so we look forward to winning this new standard for all of our members.”

Compass Group USA, which claims to be the largest food and facility service conglomerate in America, is a division of the British-based Compass Group. The multinational firm posted nearly $32.8 billion revenue and nearly $1.93 billion operating profit in 2022.

Compass initially resisted the workers’ request for a $4 to $5 hourly wage increase. Local 23 responded with picket lines and other actions, including a student-led rally and campus presentations from the Catholic Labor Network about the history of Catholic labor movements in America.

While Catholic University contracts with Compass for cafeteria services, Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan friar and pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., indicated the university had a particular obligation to uphold the church’s witness in this context. In 2022, Father Jordan — who during his time in seminary was essentially commissioned by Msgr. George Higgins, considered the original “labor priest,” to follow in his footsteps — stood with cafeteria workers from Washington’s Dirksen U.S. Senate Office Building as they petitioned for higher wages, health insurance and pension benefits.

“The Catholic University of America is the home of Catholic social teaching in America,” Father Jordan told OSV News. “It must practice what we preach, and pay the workers a just wage.”

Catholic University’s website notes that it “was founded by the Catholic bishops of the United States, with a charter from then Pope Leo XIII, to be the national university of the Catholic Church in America.”

OSV News reached out to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for comment, but the communications office deferred comment to Catholic University.

“We appreciate the contributions of these valued workers and applaud all parties in reaching an amicable agreement,” Catholic University said in a statement to OSV News. “Our students, faculty, and staff are fortunate to have such dedicated and enthusiastic individuals be a part of our Catholic University community.”

The Black Catholic Messenger reported July 13 that Local 23 union members felt the pickets at Catholic University had made a difference in pressuring Compass to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

“I know (workers) have been there 40 years and said they’ve never ever had a picket there,” Local 23’s Tabitha Johnson — who has worked at Catholic University for almost 13 years — told the Black Catholic Messenger. “So I believe that was a big push because, you know, of course they don’t want that on Catholic’s property.”

The right to unionize and seek workplace equity is fundamental to Catholic social teaching.
In his 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII urged workers to organize “societies for mutual help,” emphasizing “the most important of all are workingmen’s unions.”

St. John XXIII, St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all expounded upon Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” in various ways.

Likewise, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy” (1986) succinctly states: “The church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions.”

“In an era where outsourcing of labor usually results in the deterioration of pay, benefits, and conditions, it’s refreshing to see this contract between Compass and Unite Here that will significantly improve workers’ lives over the next several years at Catholic University and other DC-area organizations,” said Daniel Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, which also operates the Just Wage Initiative.

“Further, since food service jobs are disproportionately filled by women and workers of color, this contract shows the power of union representation to help narrow the racial and gender wage gaps that continue to plague our economy,” Graff said.

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