POLITICS
05/21/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Workers Strike Over Federal Contracts And Low Wage Jobs In D.C.

WASHINGTON -- Tyrika Meade started working at the sunglass stand in Union Station six weeks ago. She said she earns $8.25 an hour on an irregular schedule.

"I like the job but the pay is just not right," Meade, 19, said in an interview.

So she joined an estimated 150 workers striking Tuesday to protest low wages at workplaces that are funded by federal contracts. She said an organizer had approached her recently while she was working. "They said in order to get higher pay we need people to actually protest against the fact that we are getting paid minimum wage," she said.

Meade and two dozen other workers and labor activists chanted slogans against bad pay Tuesday morning at Union Station, home of Amtrak, along with dozens of retail and food stores. Meade's manager approached her as the group was marching in a circle outside an entrance to the D.C. Metrorail.

"He came up and asked me did I have anything in the kiosk, I told him no," Meade said. "And he said, 'Don't come back.'"

Meade said the manager then immediately told her she could return to work for her next scheduled shift on Friday. Though labor activists who witnessed the exchange insisted Meade had been fired, the manager, Mike Campbell, told HuffPost he only wanted her to stay away from the kiosk for the rest of the day. He worried her affiliation with the strikers would get the kiosk in trouble with higher-ups at Union Station.

"I purposely scheduled her off today so she could do her own thing," Campbell said, adding that he supported Meade.

The walkouts on Tuesday marked the latest in a string of one-day strikes put on by low-wage workers around the country. The demonstrations started last Thanksgiving, when Walmart employees went on strike in over 100 cities in the runup to Black Friday shopping festivities. Those walkouts were followed by one-day strikes by fast-food workers in New York City, and later Chicago, St. Louis and, most recently, Detroit.

Labor groups and unions have supported -- and in many cases organized -- the walkouts by low-wage workers. Usually the demonstrations have included just a small fraction of a percent of the workforces involved, putting at best an imperceptible dent into company operations, as seen at Union Station on Tuesday. But the larger goal of such "minority strikes" appears to be to inspire other workers to walk off the job or voice grievances; several participants in the most recent strikes have told HuffPost they were following the lead of earlier strikers.

With each of the campaigns calling explicitly for a living wage, organizers have held up the walkouts as evidence of growing discontent in the U.S. economy's low-wage sectors. Although most demonstrations have pilloried unsurprising employers -- Walmart, McDonald's, Taco Bell, etc. -- the D.C. protests target what walkout organizers deem an even larger low-wage employer: the federal government.

Workers like Meade, of course, do not work directly for the federal government. But their companies are often the beneficiaries of federal concessions contracts, particularly in D.C., where much of the food and retail at federal buildings and museums is handled by private companies. (In the case of Union Station, workers' ties to the federal government are even more tangential: contracts are handled through the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, a private nonprofit that's chaired by the Department of Transportation, which owns the building itself.) Good Jobs Nation, a new labor group backed by the Change to Win union federation, organized Tuesday's events.

A recent report from the left-leaning think tank Demos found that many of the jobs created by federal contracts in food and janitorial services and retail don't provide a living wage or benefits. Entitled "Underwriting Bad Jobs," the report said taxpayers end up funding the high salaries of executives at companies with federal contracts, even though those companies often pay poverty wages to their rank-and-file employees.

“Most Americans would be surprised to learn that so many of the people working on behalf of America are really poorly paid and aren’t really earning enough to support a family,” Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at Demos, recently told The Huffington Post. “Taxpayers have some responsibility for these people. They’re working for us in a sense.”

Congressional Democrats on Tuesday afternoon are following up on the report with an ad-hoc hearing to examine federally-backed low-wage work.

Meade's apparent near-firing -- or at least the misunderstanding over the apparent near-firing -- underscores the risks a worker takes when considering going on strike or demonstrating against an employer. It seemed that only a dozen or so actual workers joined organizers in white T-shirts outside Union Station on Tuesday morning.

Vilma Martinez said she's been cleaning bathrooms for Interstate Contract Cleaning Services at the station for 19 years and has never received a raise. She earns $8.25 an hour, the District's minimum wage.

"I do like the job but the pay is too low," Martinez told HuffPost in Spanish. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

James Barnes, 23, said he's been working at the Union Station Burger King roughly eight months, earning $9 per hour -- or, as he called it, "crap." He said he didn't worry about getting in trouble for striking because he figures his job isn't safe anyway.

"There is no such thing as job security," he said.

As for Meade, her manager said he sympathized with her but can't pay more for her work.

"She can't force me to pay something I can't afford," Campbell said. He said his kiosk brings in $350 a day and his rent is $8,000 a month. He insisted he didn't retaliate against Meade. "I never said, 'You're fired.'"

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

PHOTO GALLERIES
States With The Weakest Unions
Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?

CONVERSATIONS