Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call

Bernie Sanders joins striking workers demanding audience with pope

Low-wage workers at federal sites in capital find common cause with pope in supporting rights and dignity of workers

Hundreds of striking low-wage workers in Washington, D.C. want Pope Francis to join their cause. Members of Good Jobs Nation, the labor-backed campaign to win higher pay and union recognition for service employees at federal sites in the capital, halted work on Tuesday morning as part of a protest timed to coincide with the pope’s U.S. visit.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, joined roughly 1,000 workers from privately managed, federally owned workplaces, such as the Smithsonian museum food courts, joined religious leaders for a march to Capitol Hill. Most, but not all, of the workers are on strike. Several religious leaders marched alongside them, including Rev. Michael Livingston of Riverside Church of New York City, which has a long history of Christian civil rights activism. 

"In my view, when we talk about morality and when we talk about justice we have to understand that there is no justice when so few have so much, while so many have so little," Sanders said in comments posted on his website.  

The strike is part of a broader effort by U.S. labor unions to make common cause with Pope Francis. Labor leaders have praised Francis for his remarks on global wealth inequality and dignity of labor, and unions see an opportunity to cement their ties with one of the most powerful civic institutions in the world.

“The labor movement in this country has trouble reaching people, and they acknowledge it,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director for the advocacy group Faith in Public Life and author of "The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” “Having a closer relationship with Catholic leaders could help the labor movement reinvigorate its issues from a moral perspective."

Workers affiliated with Good Jobs Nation have a somewhat more urgent objective: They hope to persuade Francis to voice their concerns to Congress and President Barack Obama.

Like many of those connected to labor campaigns in low-wage service and retail professions, the workers participating in Tuesday’s strike are seeking a wage floor of $15 per hour and the right to form union. Over the past two years they have successfully pressed the White House into issuing executive orders raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 and tightening labor law compliance rules, but say they need the Obama administration to do more.

“Fifteen and a union is just a start,” said Charles Gladden, 63, who says he has worked for nearly nine years in Senate cafeterias — first at the Capitol Building and then at Dirksen — and earns roughly $11 an hour.

Gladden was one of the signatories to an open letter from Good Jobs Nation to Pope Francis requesting an audience before his talks with Congress and the White House. Gladden said the pope recognizes that "the wealthy are taking advantage of the poor."

“For him to speak and mention Good Jobs Nation and the Senate workers directly to Congress, that would be an even bigger plus,” Gladden added. “Because we're all fighting for the same thing.”

Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO, America’s biggest labor federation, said in a Monday statement that Francis’ arrival in the United States is “an opportunity for every American, regardless of faith, to reexamine the values that drive us as a country.“

“Working people stand with Pope Francis and look forward to welcoming him to the United States, as he puts forward an agenda that lifts spirits and wages,” said Trumka.

Francis’ message challenging the economic structures that oppress the working class seems to be having a wide influence in the U.S. In a recent speech to the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, offered an indirect rebuke to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, an opponent of the Illinois labor movement.

“Lawmakers and others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished,” Cupich said.

“I think that’s a real example you can point to of how Pope Francis is shaking up the politics of the church,” Gehring said.

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