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I must commend Amanda Ripley for writing one of the most balanced stories on the workings of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol I have ever read (“Master of the House,” 6/25). Having worked on Capitol Hill both as a congressional staffer and as one of the union organizers who helped the employees form their own union, I have come to know the Architect’s office quite well.

While there was much hope when Alan Hantman became the new Architect in 1997, things have pretty much remained the same for the employees—and in some cases they have deteriorated. Hantman held a series of “town hall” meetings with all of the employees in early 1997. Many of the employees bravely came forward to describe the poor personnel practices, the waste of taxpayer dollars, and the abuse that some of the employees were enduring. While copious notes were taken by the entourage that accompanied Hantman to these sessions, very little has changed. And, for most of his employees, this was the last time they have seen Hantman.

It is also very obvious from Ripley’s article that Hantman remains star-struck by his surroundings. It is very easy to do so, since the U.S. Capitol is one of the most well-known symbols of the world’s last remaining superpower. But while I worked as a union organizer, I spent nearly all of my work hours in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol complex, traveling through the maze of tunnels that connect most of the congressional office buildings and the Library of Congress. It is in this tunnel system where most of the Architect’s employees work. I soon forgot where I was because the labor rooms, the custodial workers’ locker rooms, the skilled trades shops all looked like any other work sites I had seen before, organizing public employees in New York, Florida, Indiana, and California. My knees did not tremble because this was the U.S. Capitol I was trying to organize—it was like any place else, except that some of the workplace issues were more serious than I had seen before.

So, if Hantman is sincere about relating to his employees and dealing with reality, he should spend more time going from shop to shop, labor room to labor room, locker room to locker room in the tunnel system rather than “coming up for air” and getting awestruck with the beauty of the Capitol Rotunda.

The pay-equity lawsuit that is still pending points out some real ironies about how our government mistreats its employees. As you will recall, President Bill Clinton in his State of the Union address earlier this year made strengthening our pay-equity laws one of his top legislative priorities for this Congress. It was one of the few places in his speech when he received a standing ovation from both Republicans and Democrats. So why do we still have the custodial workers’ lawsuit pending? The Architect of the Capitol, an instrumentality of Congress, has not budged to settle the case. The U.S. Attorney’s office, which is representing the Architect in this case, has not budged even though the U.S. Attorney was appointed by President Clinton. (To add insult to injury, Clinton calls AFSCME his “favorite union.” Why hasn’t he helped his “favorite union” by putting pressure on his own U.S. Attorney to settle this case?) Vice President Al Gore, who is president of the Senate, has not responded to letters sent by some of the litigants asking for his help. Some have argued that the Architect’s office does not have the money to settle the case. Excuse me? This is an agency of Congress, which has the power to appropriate monies. If the Architect can convince Congress to make a multi-million-dollar emergency appropriation to refurbish the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory, as Hantman did in 1997, it can surely scrape up the money to correct this gross pay inequity. This would be another good use for the ever-growing federal budget surplus.

The Architect has a long way to go before entering the 20th century, much less the 21st. The Washington City Paper should be commended for continuing to shed light on one of the last plantations in this country.

Alexandria, Va.

via the Internet