There was a moving and powerful event this morning at Union Station in D.C. where low-wage workers for federal contractors, leaders of the faith community, and members of Congress all did a little preaching to President Obama. Their message could not have been clearer: It is time to finally to do something real to help low wage workers step out of poverty and into the middle class.
The event was the kickoff for a new organizing initiative called Good Jobs Nation, a project that I have been working on with a coalition of faith, community and labor organizations. There was a report released by Demos, which documented that the federal government through its government contracts is the nation's biggest creator of jobs paying less than $24,000 a year, and there was a video released at the event which does a great job of summarizing the issue.
Fast-food workers in New York City, Chicago, and other cities; Wal-Mart workers all over the country have as well; truck drivers that take goods in and out of our nation's ports; and workers at companies who contract with the federal government: They are all organizing. To hear these workers' stories about the terrible pay, lack of benefits, and the way they are treated by abusive employers inspires me to keep fighting on their behalf every day, but it also makes me wonder: Where is Barack Obama? Didn't he get his start in politics fighting for these kinds of workers? Hasn't he talked repeatedly about how he is going to fight for them? Hasn't he quoted the scripture of his faith about looking out for the least of these and being our brothers and sisters' keeper?
Now in fairness to the president, helping some of these workers is not an easy thing given our economy and our nation's politics, and he can't do everything that needs doing without a Congress that is willing to act. He has come out in favor of raising the minimum wage, he has been in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act which would make it easier for low-wage workers to form unions, but Congress has refused to act. But what is profoundly troubling is that the president could help those 2,000,000 low-wage workers working for government contractors with an executive order, and for over four years now, he has refused to act. It's not like today's event is the first time he has heard about this issue. During the 2008 campaign, the idea of this executive order was discussed with him and his policy staff, and he said this would be on his policy agenda; at multiple different points in his first term, a coalition of progressive leaders asked him to sign such an executive order, and he always said he was looking at doing so; to the great credit of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA drafted a regulation that would have guaranteed better treatment for the farm workers supplying food for USDA programs such as school lunches, but the White House -- under intense pressure from the Chamber of Commerce -- sat on it and it never happened.
President Obama has waited too long, and has no more excuses: He needs to act, and act now. The federal government should be leading the way in building a stronger middle class, not eroding it by being the nation's largest producer of low wage jobs. There is no reason for him not to do us, and nothing keeping him from doing it.
Improving the wages and benefits of low-wage workers, and bringing them out of poverty and firmly into the middle class, is one of the central foundational economic issues of our time. Now is the time to act.
Here's video from this morning's event, it is worth taking a look at. The ministers who opened and closed the event were great; the workers who talked were truly wonderful, and gutsy as hell:
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