Compass food service workers in Washington, DC (photo courtesy UNITE HERE Local 23)

Pablo Lázaro has worked at the Smithsonian Institution for two decades. He is a cook at the National Museum of the American Indian and was hired via Compass, the national food service company the Smithsonian has contracted since 2000. Despite his long tenure, Lázaro earns $20.22 per hour, two dollars less than Washington, DC’s living wage for a single person (as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and $30 less than the $55.51 living wage for a person with two children. Lázaro has two daughters, ages 11 and 19. He has a second job as a nighttime cook.

Now, the 119 Compass workers across six Smithsonian museums — the National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of African American History, Natural History Museum, National Air & Space Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, and National Museum of American History — are negotiating for a new union contract. Since 2014, they’ve been members of UNITE HERE Local 23, a union representing Compass workers at other DC institutions including the World Bank and the National Institute of Health. Contracts are specific to the hiring institutions but negotiated with Compass, not the contracting organizations. (The Smithsonian told Hyperallergic it had no comment on the bargaining between Compass and UNITE HERE. The six museums do not hire any food workers directly — all are contracted through Compass.)

The Smithsonian’s cafeteria workers are full-time and receive benefits but are paid hourly. Lázaro told Hyperallergic that he is frequently given fewer than 40 hours and is assigned as few as 27 per week when attendance at the museum is slow.

“The living cost right in DC is insane,” Lázaro said. The union’s biggest push is for higher wages and raises to match inflation, which averaged 4.4% in the area last year. Wages at the different museums vary, but the lowest-paid cook at the Museum of the American Indian made only $17.31, above D.C.’s $16.10 minimum wage but significantly below the city’s cost of living. Lázaro wants more work hours, too.

The Smithsonian Compass workers’ contract expired on January 31, and while no actions are planned at the museum, Compass workers at the World Bank are holding a protest on April 12. A UNITE HERE action last fall proved successful, when Compass workers at the US Senate picketed (and 17 people were arrested in one protest) to ultimately secure a $20 minimum wage, pension contributions, and healthcare for family members.

Those standards are higher than what the Smithsonian cafeteria workers have now.

After 20 years at the museum, Lázaro said he feels comfortable there and doesn’t want to leave. He said his coworkers have been there for a long time, too. “It’s like a family,” he said, and mentioned that non-food service museum workers know and recognize him, too.

At the time Hyperallergic spoke with Lázaro, he was leaving his second job.

“Nobody should have to work two jobs to pay the bills,” he said, and mentioned his family at home. “I don’t have time to spend.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.