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Cleaning up the Capitol

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Pat Hagans has seen many historic achievements in her 22 years with the Architect of the Capitol (AOC). Now, for the first time, two milestones on Capitol Hill have the potential to greatly improve her life and the lives of her co-workers.

On Aug. 1 the U.S. Capitol's custodians and laborers voted 324 to 57 for AFSCME representation. Hagans and other custodians have also filed a suit accusing Congress of paying female workers with the AOC less than their male counterparts — the first such suit against Congress in history.

"I thought we needed a stronger voice when we spoke to management," says Hagans.

Howard McKinney, a laborer for the AOC, agrees: "I feel good knowing that now that we have a union, they'll have to sit down and talk to us."

AOC workers have felt invisible. Night after night they travel through the miles of tunnels beneath the U.S. House and Senate and adjoining congressional office buildings. They clean the offices and restrooms, empty and remove the trash, move boxes and furniture. Since much of their work is done at night, it has been easy to ignore their concerns. But no longer.

The custodians spoke up loud and clear when they sued Congress for equal pay. The AOC's discriminatory practices really hit home for Arlene and Harry Chester.

The Chesters have worked at the U.S. Capitol for many years. She's a custodian; he's a laborer. They discovered that while their jobs are almost the same, the male laborers are paid more than the female custodians. "It's about $200 difference a pay period," she says.

When Arlene decided to join in the AFSCME-led fight for equal pay, the battle became a family affair. Harry got his fellow laborers to sign petitions supporting the women.

"It wasn't the men's fault, and we know that," says Arlene. "At the same time, we couldn't help be perturbed."

As the case makes its way through the courts, Arlene will be able to depend on Harry for support. It's all in the family. And now that they are both members of AFSCME, it's all in the union too.

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