Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

Hundreds of federally contracted workers go on strike in DC

Workers demand President Obama take action to lift wages, promote unionization

Hundreds of low-wage service workers in Washington, D.C. were set to march on the U.S. Capitol at 10 a.m. Thursday to demand better working conditions. Organizers with the labor campaign Good Jobs Nation say as many as 400 striking workers could join several hundred more supporters for the rally, the latest in a series of targeted labor protests within the nation’s capital.

The striking workers are all employed at companies that have federal contracts with the U.S. government. They include food service workers, cleaning staff and other privately contracted employees who labor on federal properties such as the Smithsonian Institution's museums and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

Although federally contracted employees organized under the banner of Good Jobs Nation have walked off the job nine times before, Thursday’s strike will be the first to include food service workers from within the U.S. Capitol building itself. Workers who typically serve food to both tourists and members of Congress will instead gather on the Capitol’s lawn and demand changes to labor standards within the building.

Reginald Lewis Sr., a food service worker in the Capitol Visitor Center, said he plans to go on strike for higher pay and benefits — and to gain respect.

"As Americans, you want to live the American dream, and this would help out a whole lot," said Lewis, who currently makes $12 an hour. He said that when he was hired he was told he would be able to work 40 hours a week, but that he sometimes gets scheduled for as few as 30.

"It causes a chain reaction when you have a household, pay rent, and you have kids that are in college," he said. "I want to help out my daughter, who's in college, but I don't have the funds."

Since Good Jobs Nation’s first strike a year and a half ago, the campaign has won a handful of key victories. First, President Barack Obama signed an executive order in February that requires all federal contractors pay their employees a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. Obama followed up with executive orders banning LGBT discrimination at federally contracted workplaces and tightening labor law compliance requirements for businesses seeking federal contracts. The $10.10 executive order was particularly significant: It met the first major demand issued by the Good Jobs Nation campaign, and was seen by many activists as a sign that the White House is responsive to pressure.

Good Jobs Nation is a project of Change to Win, the labor coalition that includes powerful unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Change to Win’s Deputy Director Joe Geevarghese praised the $10.10 executive order but also described it as “the minimum” that the president could do. With Thursday’s strike, Good Jobs Nation is for the first time demanding that the federal government give preference during the contract bidding process to companies that pay their employees $15 per hour or more.

The campaign is also asking for an executive order that would promote collective bargaining among federal contractors. Effectively, Good Jobs Nation is joining with the striking fast-food worker and Walmart employee campaigns that have also demanded $15 per hour and the right to form a union.

“What we want to do on Thursday is really underscore what the fast-food workers and the Walmart workers have been saying,” Geevarghese said. “Look, the minimum wage is not enough to address the crisis of income inequality. More than the minimum wage is required of our elected leaders.”

If the White House again accedes to the campaign’s demands, the hope is that the change in labor conditions for federally contracted workers will have a ripple effect through the economy at large. The clothing retailer Gap raised its base wage from $9 to $10 shortly after Obama signed the $10.10 executive order, and Geevarghese argues that’s no coincidence.

The $10.10 executive order “created a ripple in the private sector economy,” he said.

Several sitting members of Congress ­— including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and rumored presidential hopeful, Vermont's independent senator, Bernie Sanders — planned to join the strikers Thursday for a news conference. Ellison and the Congressional Progressive Caucus were early supporters of the Good Jobs Nation campaign.

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