WASHINGTON | Delano Wingfield, 22, has been grilling up food and cleaning dishes at Roti Mediterranean Grill in Washington D.C.’s Union Station for almost a year. Struggling to get by on $9 an hour, he started encouraging coworkers to strike with him. His manager found out, he said, and slashed his hours.
“It was hard with 35 hours, and now I don’t know what I’m about to do with the 20 hours they gave me,” he said Wednesday. “I’m out here to make myself and everyone else more money.” (Wingfield’s manager did not respond to a request for comment.)
Wingfield was one of as many as 175 workers, according to organizers, who took part in a Wednesday strike in Washington planned by union-backed groups, and he's among an army of thousands of low-wage workers who have gone on one-day strikes in the last year. But unlike Walmart and fast-food workers who have also taken to the streets for better wages, Wingfield is not targeting his bosses, or Roti's corporate headquarters. He’s after President Obama.
Union Station is a federal building, which makes Roti a federal contractor. The president, by executive order, can set the standards of those contracts, including a stipulation that they pay employees what organizers call a “living wage.”
“Look, President Johnson back in the '60s said, if you want a federal contract, you cannot discriminate,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) told America Tonight at the rally, where he gave a speech in support of the workers. He was referring to the executive order Johnson signed in 1965 that forced federal contractors to ensure that employees wouldn't be treated differently because of their race.
“Today we need to say, ‘If you want a federal contract, you’ve got to pay a responsible wage that allows hard-working Americans to make it.’”
For labor activists, this is a way to circumvent a Republican-controlled Congress that’s unlikely to raise the minimum wage. Gay rights activists have taken up the same strategy in the last year, urging the president to ban federal contractors from discriminating against gays and lesbians, after more than 20 years of a more-sweeping anti-discrimination bill floundering on the House floor.
President Obama has also shown sympathy for the issues of low-wage workers, although the minimum wage increase he's expressly supported -- to $9 an hour -- is still less than what activists usually consider a "living wage."
"I think the president's heart in the right place," Ellison said. "We’ve just got to get his pen on the right place."
Federal contractors employ over a fifth of the American civilian workforce, and more than 560,000 of these workers earn $12 or less an hour, according to Demos, a liberal think tank. Many of them are cleaners and concession workers in federal buildings. If you include all the low-wage jobs funded by public dollars, including the 1.2 million paychecks underwritten by Medicare and Medicaid, the total, Demos found, surpasses the low-wage workforce of Walmart and McDonald’s combined.
Labor group Good Jobs Nation, backed by the Service Employees International Union, organized three smaller building-specific strikes earlier this year, as well as a city-wide labor action in May. It’s part of a larger strategy by unions and labor activists to push for higher wages in the largely non-unionized workforces of retail and fast food. Organizers called Wednesday's event the largest low-wage federal worker strike to date. Both Ellison and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) gave passionate speeches at the event.
“We know that most of the new jobs being created in this country today are part-time jobs. They are low-wage jobs,” Sanders told to the crowd. “And we have got to get a handle not only on unemployment, not only on income and wealth inequality. We have got to get a handle on raising wages throughout this country, so that workers do not depend on starvation wages.”
Sanders and 14 other senators also submitted a letter to the president urging him to sign an executive order that would guarantee federal contractors' workers at least $10.10 an hour.
“There’s enough money for the CEOs to live in houses with four- and five-car garages and swimming pools and yachts and stuff,” Ellison told America Tonight. “So why not say that the folks who actually fry the chicken, make the pizzas, sweep the floor, guard the floor, build the buildings make a decent pay?”
The role of federal contractors in income inequality was underscored by a Demos report released Tuesday evening that calculated if federal contractor executive pay was capped at $230,700 a year, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers could get a raise of more than $6.50 an hour without any cost to taxpayers.
While organizers estimated that close to 200 workers were present at the rally's peak, their ranks appeared to have significantly dwindled by the early afternoon news conference in front of a White House gate. After all, each hour on strike is a forgone wage. Several of Wingfield’s coworkers promised to join him for the day's action, but only one showed up, he said.
“Fear, a lot of intimidation has been brought upon them by the manager,” he explained. “So a lot of people are just afraid to come out.”