Federal Workers Demand $15 and a Union

Robert Borosage

Chanting “$15.00 and a union,” thousands federal contract workers walked off their jobs yesterday, led by the Capitol’s cafeteria workers who serve senators their food.

They were joined by Senator Bernie Sanders, now running for president, and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) They announced they were introducing legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Sanders reiterated his call – joined in a letter signed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and 18 other senators – for President Obama to give preferential treatment to good jobs employers in government contracting – employers who pay their workers a living wage, offer decent benefits like paid sick leave, and recognize their ability to bargain collectively.

Action is long overdue. The federal government is, as Demos reports, the largest low-wage employer in the country. Senators – particularly the four running for president in addition to Sanders – ought to learn about the lives of those who serve them.

Sontia Bailey, for example, is a cashier at the U.S. Capitol where senators grab their coffee and granola. As The Guardian reports and our Emily Foster wrote Wednesday, she earns $10.59 an hour, not enough to make ends meet. So she has a second job at fast food giant KFC which actually pays her more – $11.00 per hour – than the contractor that runs the Senate cafeteria does. As she says, “Colonel Sanders pays me more than Uncle Sam.”

She works 70 hours a week, Monday through Sunday, rising at 6 a.m. and getting back to sleep at 1 a.m. the next morning. When Jeb Bush suggests that workers have to learn to work “longer hours,” she wonders what he can be thinking. The stress of working two jobs surely contributed directly to her recent miscarriage. “If I had just one good paying job,” she writes, “I would be a mother today.”

Her story is mirrored by that of Bertrand Olotra, a single father who also works two jobs because his job as a cook in Senate cafeteria doesn’t pay enough. Despite that, he has to rely on food stamps so his kids don’t go to bed hungry. He doesn’t get why the U.S. government would award a contract to Compass Group, a United Kingdom multinational, that allows them to pay their workers so little they must rely on food stamps. Shouldn’t federal contracts give preference to good American employers who pay a living wage, benefits and all their workers to bargain collectively?

In a recent report, The Capitol of Inequality, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute details how the federal government contributes to the glaring income inequality of the District, where the top 5 percent average $532,000 per year and the bottom 20 percent survive on an average of $9,900 in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Thirty percent of federal contract jobs now pay less than the living wage for a family of four. Half of federally contracted food preparation and service workers make about $10.80 an hour, or $22,500 a year, if they work full-time.

The low-wage workforce at the U.S. Capitol demonstrates what is happening. The Senate Dining Room, reserved for U.S. senators and their guests, is perhaps America’s most exclusive members-only restaurant. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute reports that the chefs and restaurant workers were once directly employed by the federal government with living wages and decent health and retirement benefits. Then, in 2008, the government outsourced its food services to a private corporation. Pay and benefits for new hires were slashed. Jobs that once paid decent wages now pay just over $10 per hour. The company makes big profits, and the workers take a hit. And taxpayers now not only pay for the contract but for food stamps and medical expenses.

Over the same time period, the report notes, U.S. senators’ median net worth increased substantially, rising from just over two million dollars, to over $2,600,000, an increase of 27 percent.

The Fight for 15 movement is gaining momentum. It has won victories in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and SeaTac, Washington. On Wednesday, a New York wage board formally recommended a $15 minimum wage for the fast food industry in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo could move that to into law after reviewing it.

Pressure is now building on the president to act. He deserves credit for issuing orders raising the minimum wage of contract employees to $10.10, and requiring contractors to obey various labor laws. Now federal employees are striking for $15 and a union. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, Sanders, Warren and 18 senators have joined their call. Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, echoes it on the campaign trail.

Surely the federal government should be a model employer, putting its thumb on the scale on the side of workers and high-road employers, not on the side of low-road employers. Responding to striking federal workers, President Obama helped kick-start the movement to raise the minimum wage. Now he can give that movement another boost.

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