The State of Our Union? Economically Unjust

To honor Martin Luther King, Jr., the White House declared a “day of service” in Dr. King’s memory, and President Obama spent a few minutes on Monday helping to serve meals in a soup kitchen near the White House. Talk about a tin ear, or a timid one.

For starters, Martin Luther King’s life was not about soup kitchens. It was about radical, disruptive struggle to win civil rights; and then in his last five years it was about connecting racial justice to economic justice. Dr. King took pains to define the 1963 March on Washington as about jobs as well as justice. He was murdered while helping striking sanitation workers in Memphis fight for decent wages.

If we had more good jobs, and less Republican assault on what’s left of our social safety net, we’d need fewer soup kitchens. The president might have honored Dr. King’s legacy by giving a speech about that.

One can sympathize—to a point—with President Obama’s wish to downplay both the radicalism and the racial aspect of Dr. King. As the first African American president, Obama is at pains to be president of all the people, and not to be a lightening rod for the racism that still stains America (though some would argue that he is at his very best when talking about race). He even passed up the chance to speak at the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

But however Obama chooses to walk the tightrope of race, he has to do a lot better than soup kitchens as the emblem of his presidency. Soup kitchens—and God bless them—among their other political liabilities signal private charity, paralysis of government, and solicitude for the very poor, rather than turning the spotlight on the broad needs of American working families and government’s necessary role in helping America’s workers earn a decent living.

Obama’s next opportunity will be the State of the Union Address on Tuesday.

Progressive Democrats, spurred on by the Change to Win labor Federation and the group Good Jobs Nation, have been urging the president to make good jobs the centerpiece of his address. Specifically, the groups want Obama to use the leverage of government contracting to require that any company that has a contract with the government pay its workers a living wage.

Today in Washington, workers will be picketing outside several federally-owned buildings, including Union Station, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Pentagon, and—all too fittingly—the Ronald Reagan World Trade Center, to demand that contractors there pay a living wage. The contractors include fast food franchises such as McDonalds.

As Good Jobs Nation has documented, the federal government underwrites more bad jobs, by giving contracts to low-wage employers—two million of them—than Wal-Mart and McDonalds combined. Of the top 100 federal contractors, 35 percent have been found guilty of wage theft and 48 percent of health and safety violations.

Change to Win’s idea is that the President not only issue an executive order on wage standards in federal contractors, but require that they follow other labor laws or be barred from doing business with the government, just like companies that violate civil rights laws. CTW wants Obama to name a “Good Jobs Czar” at the White House, to bring high-level support for the Labor Department in carrying out these orders.

As Dr. King declared in his last speech, on April 4, 1968, “The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.”

The issue is still economic injustice. Today’s victims are the abused workers of federal contractors.

This idea is not only the right thing to do. It’s necessary politics. The Democrats—and Obama’s own legacy—are at risk this fall, because of the backlash against the Affordable Care Act, the retirement of leading senate Democrats in swing states, and the fact that a president’s party normally loses seats in the sixth year of an incumbency. Turnout is also usually reduced in an off-year election. Democrats could easily lose their Senate majority unless they change the equation.

This is slowly dawning on White House operatives, who had shunned support for a higher national minimum wage but are now embracing it. In states where there are ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, operatives realized, turnout among base Democratic voters increases. Political independents—and even Republicans—are also disgusted with the failure of wages to keep pace with the cost of living.

“Inequality” as an abstract ill does not produce much political traction. But practical help to working families does.

The president now supports a national increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. He could do a lot more with his executive power. Embracing higher wages for working people puts the president on the side of ordinary Americans. Unlike the Affordable Care Act, these remedies are straightforward, easy to grasp, and don’t require engaging with a buggy website.

And if President Obama is a little uneasy about addressing the loaded subject of race, higher wages for working people is a universal cause. It sure beats soup kitchens.

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