Low-Wage Federal Contractors To Strike Wednesday

Dave Johnson

U.S. Senate contract janitors and food service workers will walk off their jobs Wednesday to protest poverty pay, along with hundreds of striking workers from the U.S. Capitol, Pentagon, Smithsonian Institution and other federal landmarks.

They will be joined by the woman who cleans Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s office. The strike will take place under the banner of Good Jobs Nation. They are asking for “More Than the Minimum.”

Through privatization and contracting, the U.S. government has become the country’s biggest low-wage job creator, funding over 2 million poverty jobs through contracts, loans and grants with private businesses that pay the minimum and provide few if any benefits.

The workers want President Obama to sign a “model employer executive order” that gives a preference to federal contractors that pay living wages of at least $15 an hour, provide decent benefits like paid leave, and allow them to collectively bargain so they need not go on strike to be heard.

A recent CNN story, These federal building janitors say they’re owed back pay, explains the problem:

The janitors who clean the office of Education Secretary Arne Duncan claim they are not paid the wages they’re legally entitled to.

That’s according to a formal complaint filed Thursday with the Labor Department by a group called Good Jobs Nation, which represents low-wage workers employed by federal contractors.

The janitors are among dozens of workers – including grounds keepers and bus drivers – who say they are routinely denied the pay and time off they are entitled to under federal law. They work for businesses under contract with federal agencies such as the Department of Education, the National Zoo and the Park Service. … At issue is the 1965 Service Contract Act, which requires federal contractors to pay their employees a certain minimum wage depending on their occupation and location.

More recently, President Obama signed an executive order last year requiring businesses with new or renewed federal contracts to pay their minimum wage workers $10.10 an hour starting this year.

The advocacy group Good Jobs Nation says violations of these rules are “rife both in Washington D.C. and throughout the country.” It calls on federal agencies “to take meaningful responsibility for enforcing the letter and the spirit” of the act and other rules Congress has passed to protect low-wage workers.

George Faraday, policy director for Good Jobs Nation, said the laws designed to protect people who work at federal contractors are “routinely flouted right under the noses of those charged with policing them.”

The Return of Federal Sweatshops?

Good Jobs Nation has produced a report on the problem of poverty wages in government jobs, “The Return of Federal Sweatshops?” The report’s overview lays out the problem:

Today, the United States Government funds millions of low-wage jobs in the private sector through contract, loans, and grants. It wasn’t supposed to be this way – during the previous century, Congress enacted a series of contract wage laws to protect these workers from poverty and sweatshop-like exploitation. This report shows that these federal contract wage laws no longer work in the modern era as good union jobs disappear.

Our research shows that federal contract wage rates are falling as unions lose their ability to collectively bargain to raise wages and improve working conditions for all workers in their industries.

The report also identifies how federal contractors exploit legal loopholes and exclusions to deprive millions of federally funded workers from joining the middle class. To make matters worse, evidence shows that the enforcement of the contract wage laws by the U.S. Department of Labor is historically inadequate and is not improving despite recent efforts to increase contractor compliance.

Most importantly, the report illustrates how the broken federal wage system impacts the lives of contract workers who are struggling to survive as wage rates fall, loopholes proliferate, and enforcement falters.

Good Jobs Nation recommends an alternative approach to remedy these failures and prevent the return of the federal sweatshop – the President should use his executive powers over federal contracting to make sure taxpayer dollars reward “model employers” that pay their workers a living wage of at least $15 hour, offer decent benefits, and respect their right to collectively bargain.

If you are in D.C. Wednesday, head down to the front lawn of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (across from Supreme Court) at 10 a.m. Look for the crowd and signs, “Hiring: A President who will sign a $15+Union Executive Order.” Join U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), U.S. Reps Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and others; national faith leaders and hundreds of federal contract workers from U.S. Capitol, Senate, Pentagon, Smithsonian, Union Station, U.S. Department of Education, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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