fresh voices from the front lines of change







Joanne, a food service worker at the federal Ronald Reagan Building near the White House, took time off from her job Monday to join fellow federal contractor employees at a protest outside the Smithsonian National Zoo. As she explained her monthly budget, it was clear she had nothing much to lose.

"I make just around $1,000 a month," she said, "and I pay $500 for child care, and $250 just to ride the Metro to go to work. After that, I have nothing."

Even with her husband's support, Joanne said she struggles to get by. Her salary of "$8.90 an hour is not enough," she said. "I have no insurance, no holidays – nothing. My dream is to go to culinary school, and President Obama, you can help me make my dreams come true."

As a Summit on Working Families was underway at the White House, Joanne was with about 200 other women who work for federal contractors protesting at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Calling themselves "the New Rosies", the women dressed up as Rosie the Riveter and held up big bold signs that said "We Can't Do It on $10.10/hr."

"President Obama go all the way, Give us a union, today!," one of their chants went. The message behind their chants: President Obama should sign a "Good Jobs Executive Order" that gives federal women contractors the right to unionize and bargain collectively. Their demands also include a living wage, paid time off, health insurance, and flexible schedules for working family women.

Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of Change to Win, led the protest. He called for the president to help America's low-wage women succeed. "$10.10 is not enough to address the problems of inequality for working women and help them achieve their American dream," he said.

Ben Pack from Demos spoke on the think tank's recent report, "Underwriting Good Jobs." "Seven out of 10 low-wage federal jobs are occupied by women," he said. "The U.S. government is the largest employer of low-wage women."

Pack then presented the four main components of a Good Jobs Executive Order, which would set minimum labor standards for companies seeking federal contracts: allowing collective bargaining, providing living wages and benefits, following the law, and limiting CEO pay.

Nicole Woo, director of domestic policy at the Center for Economic Policy Research, also provided statistics on the benefits of unions addressing all the issues that working women face. "Few other methods offer the same benefits that unions provide." Woo's recent research demonstrates that 86 percent of women in unions are more likely to receive insurance, have pregnancy leave, and have access to other benefits that enable them to better support their families.

Several more employees of federal contractors for the National Zoo, Union Station, the Pentagon, and other federal facilities spoke at the rally as "New Rosies" demanding change – and the right to unionize.

Meanwhile at the White House summit, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett opened with personal stories about being a working mother. Her first story was an account of when she was eight months pregnant and in a meeting at 2 a.m. As the only woman in the room, she felt like she couldn't tell anyone that she had to use the bathroom, so she made up excuses to leave.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and Neera Tandin of the Center for American Progress spoke about the need for paid family leave and minimum wage increases as a necessity for working families and not just a lucky bonus in rare situations.

Mid-morning, Vice President Joe Biden, seemingly heartfelt and genuine, spoke about his experiences after his first wife and daughter died and he suddenly became a single dad. He chose to commute (which amounted to over 8,000 times) to Washington every day so that he could provide some consistency for his sons. But he admits that he had help, from his parents and sister. Thus, he emphasized how important it is that employers help their employees prioritize their families.

President Obama gave a very enthusiastic speech touching on all topics covered by the summit. He announced a presidential memorandum to encourage federal agencies to provide "flexible workplace options" to their employees. And he announced that he is allocating $25 million to the Labor Department to provide childcare to parents while they look for work.

The half-a-mile separating the White House Summit and the working women's protest is symbolic of the distance between America's minimum wage workers and the elite middle-class thinkers and policy makers. President Obama, Vice President Biden, as well as many other high-ranking officials were speaking at that event. Let us hope that the voices of these women – whom the policies will actually affect – will be heard.

Emily DiVito contributed to this post

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