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Obama's Next Action: Empowering Low Wage Federal Workers

04/23/2015 07:30 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

This week in Washington, hundreds of low wage federal government contract workers walked off their jobs, demonstrating for a living wage and a union. They included Senate janitors and food service workers, the workers who serve the Senators their food and clean up the messes they leave.

Carrying signs reading "Hiring: A President who will sign a $15 +Union Executive Order," these workers are calling on President Obama to lead, asking him to put government on the side of workers by issuing an executive order that would give preference in government procurement and licensing to companies that pay a living wage with benefits and respect their workers' right to organize. Joining their cause were Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), now weighing a presidential run, as well as Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Reps Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and many other legislators.

The Return of the Federal Sweatshop

The sad reality is that the United States government remains the country's largest low wage job creator. All those Senators tromping through New Hampshire promising to rebuild the middle class are part of a Congress that doesn't pay the workers who serve them enough to lift a family out of poverty.

Kellie Duckett, a 30-year-old food service worker at the Capitol Visitor's Center, was one of the protestors. Paid about $11 an hour, she is forced to live with a parent, rely on Medicaid and food stamps, while still struggling to afford school uniforms and supplies for her two children. Most of the people striking, she said, "have children that they have to think about." "We need [$15 and a union] because everything is going up: groceries, taxes, everything. But our paychecks are staying the same."

Federal contracting with private vendors supports about two million low-wage private sector jobs, according to Demos, a national research institute, in their study, "Underwriting Bad Jobs." That is "more than the number of low wage workers at Walmart and McDonald's combined."

Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements and property leases go to private companies that pay lousy wages, provide few benefits, and offer employees little opportunity to work their way into the middle class. In some cases, such as the garment industry -- involved in making the uniforms for our military or federal police -- Washington contractors undermine industry standards, paying "far less than the industry median," while suffering "forced overtime and hazardous work conditions." Politicians are learning to talk the talk about raising wages and redressing inequality, but they walk the walk of driving wages down.

It Takes a President

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama called out Congress on its failure to raise the minimum wage: "And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise."

Then, responding to repeated mass demonstrations of low wage workers, the president acted on his own, issuing executive orders last year to raise the minimum wage of workers on government contracts to $10.10 an hour and to tighten oversight of contractor's compliance with safety and labor laws.

Now those workers are calling on him to do "more than the minimum." Their organization, Good Jobs Nation and a broad coalition of organizations (including the Campaign for America's Future that I direct) argue that it is time for the government to favor high road employers like Costco rather than low road employers like Walmart. High road employers can be competitive because they reap the benefits of great productivity, greater employee loyalty, and far less turnover.

President Obama's action on the minimum wage demonstrated the power of presidential initiative. After he issued his executive order, companies like The Gap, Disney and IKEA responded by lifting their minimum wages, cities from Seattle to Chicago acted, minimum wage initiatives passed in red states like Arkansas and Nebraska... Eventually, even McDonald's and Walmart joined in.

But when it comes to doing more than the minimum, the federal government has been a laggard, not a leader. Good Jobs Nation points out reports that local governments are already moving -- "over 120 jurisdictions" have enacted policies that give preferences to public contractors that pay living wages, offer health care, provide paid leave and/or promote collective bargaining." New York City, for example, just expanded its living wage ordinance to ensure city contractors are paying at least $13.13 an hour. Mayor Bill De Blasio now plans to enlist other Mayors and public executives to follow his example, as he takes his Economic Covenant with America across the country.

Presidential Leadership Helped Build the Middle Class

Historically, presidential leadership has been vital in empowering workers and helping to build the middle class. During World War I, War Secretary Newton Baker proclaimed that "the government cannot permit its work to be done under sweatshop conditions." During the Depression under Roosevelt and in the reform era under Lyndon Johnson, the federal government passed "prevailing wage" measures that extended across federal contracting -- from construction, to manufacturing and goods contracts to service contracts. The principle was that government should be a source of good jobs, not undermining the wages prevailing in different industries in different locations. But as unions declined over the last decades, companies drove wages down, and the prevailing wage often plummeted to poverty levels. Conservative administrations carved more and more exceptions out of the prevailing wage protections. And enforcement grew ever more lax, with wage theft often robbing workers of the wages that they should get.

The question ultimately is whose side the federal government is on. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt acted forcefully to put government on the side of workers and their unions. He established the first national minimum wage early in the New Deal, while licensing workers to organize unions under his 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act. FDR argued that "no business which depends on its existence on paying less than living wages has any right to continue in this country." He later signed the Wagner Act, setting up the constitution for union representation and collective bargaining, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, abolishing child labor and establishing overtime pay for one in four American workers. Union membership soared.

During World II, labor issued a "no strike" pledge. In response, as historian Harvey Kaye, author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great, reports, "FDR's National War Labor Board enforced a "Maintenance of Membership" policy whereby unions that honored the "no strike pledge" would automatically enroll new workers as members for the duration of their existing contracts, unless those workers themselves opted out in their first two weeks on the job. With this kind of presidential support, unions would expand their ranks during the war from 10 million to 15 million -- with women's memberships increasing from 800,000 to 3 million."

The Obama Challenge

In his State of the Union address, President Obama emphasized the importance of unions: "To give working families a fair shot... we still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions and give American workers a voice."

But with Republicans in control, there is no hope of Congressional action. Obama has shown he will act on his own when Congress fails the country: "I've got a pen, and I've got a phone. And that's all I need," he said in 2014. "Because with a pen, I can take executive actions."

The president is now planning action to revise and enforce overtime laws. Obama has claimed that his trade policies are focused on enforcing labor rights in our trading partners. That might gain more credibility were he to act to enforce them at home.

He should use his pen to curtail the federal government's support of sweatshop labor. Tens of thousands of low-wage workers walked out in the Fight for 15 demonstrations in over 200 cities across the country last week, in the largest demonstrations of low wage workers in memory. The janitors and food service workers at federal buildings and monuments are asking from the White House only what their fellow fast food and low wage workers in the private sector are demanding from private firms: $15 an hour and union rights. Government should lead in building the middle class, not join in the race to the bottom. This is a cause the president should lead. It is time to act.