Strike wave spurs Obama to make contractors pay $10.10

By Josh Eidelson, Salon

Campaign tells Salon more work stoppages could still be ahead

Low-wage, federally-contracted janitors and construction workers will have a new minimum wage of $10.10 per hour, under an executive order announced by the White House Tuesday. Advocates said the full scope of the order, which will be formally announced during tonight’s State of the Union address, remains unclear, but could include hundreds of thousands of employees under future federal contracts.

“I’m excited, and I’m glad that I know that Obama is listening and he’s on our side, and not on Ronald McDonald’s side,” said Air and Space Museum McDonald’s worker Alexis Vasquez, one of hundreds of non-union workers to participate in a series of one-day work stoppages since May. As I’ve reported, those strikes – including a walkout at the Pentagon last week – were organized by the union-backed Good Jobs Nation campaign in an effort to force executive action. As recently as this month, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who’ve rallied repeatedly with the strikers, told Salon the White House had been unresponsive to their pleas. “If we had never done this,” said Vasquez, “we would have continued making $8.25 for the rest of our lives.”

“For the first time since Roosevelt, a president is using his executive powers to help workers,” said Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of the Change to Win union federation, which backs Good Jobs Nation.

“I think the president has realized that he’s one of the only people in Washington who has the power both the power and the will to do something on behalf of people who don’t belong to the donor class,” said Demos President Heather McGhee, whose think tank has backed the workers’ demands. A Demos report released at the start of the Good Jobs Nation effort pegged the number of taxpayer-backed jobs paying no more than $12 (a broader category than that covered by Obama’s order) at 2 million. What had been “an inside game with the White House task force and lawyers and all that,” argued McGhee, was transformed into “an outside game…most importantly through workers themselves willing to put their meager day’s pay on the line to strike for something better for their families.”

“Basically,” said McGhee, “this is the president saying, as sort of America’s chief employer: I’m going to do my part. Now it’s Congress’ turn to do their part for the rest of America’s underpaid workforce.”

But the move announced today falls short of what Demos and Change to Win have urged. Good Jobs Nation has sought a three-pronged executive order that would significantly hike contracted workers’ wages, strengthen enforcement of labor law against scofflaw contractors, and beef up workers’ organizing rights. Geevarghese told Salon that the new executive order represents “a good start” towards the first of those three aims. Asked if workers would still strike in the future to win their other demands, Geevarghese answered, “Perhaps.” Given that “the issues are still there,” said Geevarghese, including contractors’ alleged failure to follow the wage laws already on the books, “I think we’re going to see continued worker unrest going forward.”

The White House released a fact sheet Tuesday stating that “Raising wages for those at the bottom will improve the quality and efficiency of services provided to the government,” and would benefit “hardworking people” like “military base workers who wash dishes, serve food and do laundry.” It added that a $10.10 wage, not applicable to current contracts, “will be manageable for contractors.” Asked about prospects for policy changes cracking down on labor law violations by contractors, a White House spokesperson declined further comment.

The White House reportedly explored wielding executive authority to make it harder for contractors with worse labor or environmental records to secure contracts in 2010; an Obama nominee told Congress in 2011 that no such move was currently in the works. According to a December report released by Senate Democrats, companies that secured more than $81 billion in federal contracts in the previous year together drew nearly 1,800 Labor Department enforcement actions over six years. Good Jobs Nation has alleged several cases of illegal retaliation against workers who went on strike in federal buildings, including some of the workers who walked out at the Pentagon last week. Charges filed yesterday with the National Labor Relations Board allege that the restaurant company Seven Hills punished and interrogated strikers; Seven Hills did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While the executive order only applies to future contracts, Geevarghese suggested that by “sending a signal to companies that if you want to do business with the U.S. government, you should create good jobs,” the order would also spur more immediate wage hikes.

“I’m making $8.25 now, and it’s not enough to support my unemployed father and my little sister,” Vasquez told Salon. Recalling “screaming my lungs out so that Obama can hear us” from outside the White House, he said today’s order vindicated his efforts: “This means the seven strikes…wasn’t all for nothing. Going through rain, snow, and heat wasn’t all for nothing.”

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