Just outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, hundreds of workers wearing blue shirts that said "Strike!" rallied for more pay. Leaders led chants in English and Spanish, from "Hey, hey, ho, ho, $10.10 is way too low," to "¿Que queremos? Quince y un unión."
These workers were striking for a day against companies contracted by the federal government to ring up powerful politicians’ lunch orders in the Senate, clean offices in the Pentagon, and cook food at the Smithsonian museums.
As the Fight for $15 has gained traction across the United States, workers—supported by a coalition of unions, labor advocates, and politicians—are saying that it’s time for the federal government to become a model employer. A cadre of progressive politicians, including Senator Bernie Sanders, also used the event to introduce legislation that calls for a national $15 minimum wage. But with legislative success along those lines unlikely, advocates are calling on President Obama to take action—through a “Model Employer Executive Order”— that would set a base pay for federal contract workers at $15, bolster benefits, and make it easier to form a union.
This would mean a big raise for workers like Sontia Bailey and Charles Gladden. Speaking at the rally on Wednesday, Bailey explained how despite working full-time as a cashier at a café in the U.S. Capitol, she also had to take a second job at KFC. She works 70 hours a week, Monday through Sunday. Three weeks ago, she had a miscarriage. But with bills to pay, she didn’t even have a chance to grieve before returning to work.
Charles Gladden has a food-service job in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Yet, for months he had been sleeping outside the McPherson Square metro station because he couldn’t afford rent. In April, the Washington Post ran an op-ed telling Gladden’s story and bringing the perilous plight of impoverished federal contract workers into the national discourse.
In 2014, Obama bumped minimum pay up to $10.10 for federal contract workers. Then in recognition of the fact that federal contractors comprise 30 percent of wage and safety violators, he later issued an order that upped the scrutiny federal contractors must face for working condition standards.
Now, advocates say, it’s time for the president to finish the job.
“Workers are standing up all over the country asking for fair treatment and living wages,” says Paco Fabian, spokesperson for Good Jobs Nation, a federal contract worker campaign supported by the Change to Win Federation. “We hope the White House and the president take action for the workers that they can directly help.”
The size of the federal contract workforce has exploded to two million over the last 15 years—and it is a big business. In 2012, federal agencies doled out more than $500 million on contracted products and services.
The way that the current federal procurement system works is that the lowest bidder almost always gets the contract—and low bids are usually indicative of low wages. This process has essentially turned the federal government, not Walmart or McDonald’s, into the largest creator of low-wage jobs. And these jobs are largely going to already disadvantaged people—more than 70 percent of federal contract workers are women; more than 45 percent are of color.
While current contract wage laws mandate that many federal service and construction contracts meet a certain prevailing wage—policies that ensure more than 5,000 D.C. workers are paid a living wage—there are many contract workers who are left unprotected by existing standards.