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Hazel Dews started cleaning up after U.S. senators in August 1974, nine days after President Nixon resigned from office. “I remember the police posted outside the committee room all night long,” she says, describing how the “ladies” like herself got a police escort when they tidied up the hearing room in those dark days.

Through the tail end of Watergate, to Abscam, Iran-contra, and the Republican Revolution, Dews has arrived each night at 10:30 p.m. to scrub the bathrooms, empty the trash, and clean the office floors of senators housed in the Russell Building. She’s one of hundreds of women—mostly older African-Americans—who have been making their rounds for years, silently straightening up the dens of power all through the night. And today, as she finishes up at 7 a.m., she looks worn through.

All but six of the 300 “custodians” are women, most of whom have been there for over a decade. Alongside them, a crew of 220 “laborers”—all but six of whom are men—takes out the trash, sweeps the stairs, and cleans the hall bathrooms and floors.

Only, the laborers earn up to $11.10 an hour, while the custodians cannot make more than $10.08 an hour—a one-dollar difference that adds up to about $2,000 a year.

The rationale is older than Congress itself: The men lift more, allegedly, so they should make more, presumably. But the women—and many of the men—say that’s a sorry excuse. They say their boss, the Architect of the Capitol, has handed the women much more work, and lots of lifting, as the workforce has been downsized.

Dews estimates that about 50 of her co-workers have retired in the last two years. The managers have been replaced, she says, but not the custodians. “It’s hard. It’s extremely hard,” she says of her burgeoning workload. “And it’s getting worse.”

Kathelia Hair, who cleans in the same building as Dews, says, “You clean 21 to 23 rooms. You clean, and empty the trash, and then you go down the hallway and see this guy with a feather duster dusting the hallways.”

To get equal pay for equal dusting, Dews and more than 50 of her fellow women janitors joined a union this summer and filed a wage-discrimination suit against the Architect’s office. They say the pay policy is nothing but another pile of garbage stinking up the halls of governance.

When it comes to labor relations, Congress has well earned its characterization as the “last plantation in America.” Up until 1995, employees of the Capitol did not have the same rights as federal employees everywhere else; namely, they were not allowed to unionize.

In 1982, for example, House cafeteria workers (alongside suppressed Polish shipyard workers) appealed to the United Nations to recognize their right to unionize. The U.N.’s International Labor Organization supported the right of congressional employees to “carry out normal trade union activities in full conformity with the principles of freedom of association.” But since Congress had its own set of rules for governing itself, encouragement was about all the U.N. could offer.

It wasn’t until the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, part of the Contract With America, that congressional employees received the right to unionize. The act also specified that Congress could not discriminate against its employees on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or sex.

It took two years for Dews and her colleagues to work up enough resentment to take the act at its word. Dews had contacted a lawyer, who told her she had a strong case. But the lawyer went on to say she could never afford to win it on her own, so she and her colleagues went to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The union is now paying all their legal fees.

“I’ve been in the union business for over 20 years,” says Carl Goldman, executive director of AFSCME Council 26, “but I have never seen anything like this.” Goldman says his union took on the custodians’ case even before officially representing the women, “before we got a penny in dues.” The discrimination case, Goldman says, was simply too blatant to turn down.

After filing a complaint against the Architect of the Capitol with the Congressional Office of Compliance, the union entered into mediation with representatives from the Architect’s office. The women asked the Architect himself, Alan Hantman, to meet with them so that they could make their case personally. Aside from some earlier generic “town meetings,” he never engaged their concerns. In May, talks broke off, and two months later the union filed a class-action lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and a claim under the Equal Pay Act. Now they await the government’s answer, which is due this week. If the case is not settled after that, it will likely go to trial within the next couple of months.

“These folks live in the neighborhoods of D.C. and P.G. County and Virginia. They have roots in the community,” Goldman says. “This is [about] the working class of D.C. and the fact that this major institution that employs a couple thousand people is treating several hundred women in a discriminatory manner.”

When asked about the charges of unfair treatment, Herb Franklin, administrative assistant for the Architect’s office, says, “We do not comment on matters in litigation.” But he adds later, “We endeavor to see that men and women who are doing the same work are paid equitably.”

And wages, the women say, are just the most obvious grievance. Custodians complain of too much work and too little upward mobility, along with innumerable petty injustices. Earlier this year, for example, the Senate appropriated $200,000 to buy uniforms for the workers who clean the Senate offices. Although they’d never worn uniforms before, the custodians would now have to choose between two options, one of which was a short white skirt. “It looked like a micro-mini,” Dews says. “You got to pick up a wastebasket in that thing?”

Why, wondered many of the women, did they have to look so nice when no one ever sees them, mopping away in the middle of the night? Again, the union was crucial in helping the women keep the uniforms in the closet, for now. The two sides are currently negotiating a uniform that the workers find acceptable. As for the Architect’s office, Franklin says, “The word ‘short’ is in the eye of the beholder.”

For two decades now, Dews has been refusing to play mammy on Capitol Hill. “I’ve complained about every rotten thing,” she says. And as is always the case, back talk has had its consequences. In 1994, Dews says, she complained to the Architect about getting a measly 3-cents-per-hour wage hike while the men got 10 cents. Management responded by dumping the dirtiest room in the building onto her beat, Dews claims.

After joining the union, Dews says more than one of her supervisors promised her, “If you think things were bad before, they’re gonna get worse.” (The superintendent in charge of the night-shift custodians did not return multiple calls from Washington City Paper.) But Dews has no regrets.

“The key thing is that they now have a voice. Before this, they had no meaningful voice,” Goldman says. Like women all over the nation, the custodians are finding new power in the old-school world of unions. Last year, women made up 39 percent of all union members, and a majority of new ones, according to a 1997 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. And unionized women earned 38 percent more than nonunion women, the report says. At a conference on working women this month, the AFL-CIO announced survey results showing that equal pay was the No. 1 concern of the more than 50,000 women surveyed.

“This is 1997. This shouldn’t be happening,” says Arlene Chester, who’s been cleaning Senate offices for 12 years. Chester’s husband is one of the laborers. His paycheck is $200 more than hers, she says, and she’s been on the job six years longer. Her only explanation is that “the mind-set is that men are supposed to make more than women.”

One of the male laborers, Franklyn Lindsay, concedes that the disparity is obvious. “I think [the women] are being overworked,” he says. Although on occasion some of the men do have to lift the heavy trash dumpsters and mop the halls, Lindsay says most of their time is spent doing essentially the same tasks as the women.

“I always thought this was one job that wouldn’t stress me out mentally,” Chester says. “But now I’ve just come to the conclusion that a lot of management just don’t like women.”

Dolores Jones, who works on the House side in the Cannon Building, says she likes her job but is ready to go. When she took the position 10 years ago, she thought there would be some chance for upward mobility. She’s still waiting. “I think we get paid pretty good for what we do,” she concedes, but the unfairness smarts. “We don’t have anything against our men, but we do the bulk of the work and we get less pay.”

Strangely, the custodians consistently blame their supervisors before they blame the members of Congress. “I really and truly do not believe that these congressmen and senators know what’s going on,” Dews says.

So far, though, only D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and California Rep. Maxine Waters have publicly supported the women. Norton is chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus and former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She has studied the case and says it’s a strong one. “This is an old-fashioned equal-pay case that we rarely see today,” Norton says. “This case should have been settled in mediation.”

If Dews holds out three more years, she can retire. Until then, she has no plans to change jobs. “I’ve been there so long. It’s just like something that belongs to me. It’s like my glove,” she says. And when she retires, she’ll stay in D.C., where she’s been for 50 years, because “that’s where I belong.” Dews plans on giving it a rest when she crosses the finish line—she says she’ll occupy her golden years by doing absolutely “nothing.”

For now, she expects the battle to grind on. With lips pursed and head up, she says she’s ready.

“I’m like a coffee cup,” she says of her fearlessness. “If you fill up a coffee cup, it’s gonna run over. It’s to that point. I don’t care what they do to me.”CP