On Thursday, several hundred low-wage federal contract employees walked off their jobs in the nation's capitol, telling President Obama that "$10.10 is not enough," demanding a livable wage and the right to organize. While praising the president for issuing the executive order that raised the minimum wage for federal contract employees to $10.10, they argued that it was time for "more than the minimum."
These workers are calling for a Good Jobs Executive Order that would give preference in government procurement to good employers that (1) pay their employees a living wage of $15.00 an hour, (2) offer good American benefits, including paid sick days, and (3) respect their employees' right to organize and bargain collectively to gain a fair share of the profits and productivity they help to create. This action is vital, as the New York Times reported, "to ensuring that federal contracting is not a contest to see who can pay the least, but a rational process both for ensuring good jobs at fair play and for setting an example for the private sector."
Today, the US government is America's leading low-wage employer. These are workers like Reginald Lewis who spoke at the rally, as reported by Richard Long of CAF:
"I'm a worker at the Capitol. This building symbolizes the American Dream for so many, but not for me and my kids. I'm paid $12 an hour, but I receive food stamps to live. I'm 50 years old, and I can't afford to save for retirement. My ex-wife and I are trying to help my daughter pay for college, but we can't afford the tuition. My company is making $6 billion in profits, and we aren't getting any of that at all."
With a stroke of the pen, the president can have a dramatic effect on the lives of Lewis and millions of workers, leveraging not only the $1 trillion in spending on federal contracts, but setting an example that will accelerate similar action at the state and local level.
The choice here is a simple one. President Obama has held up Costco as an example of a good jobs employer that is remarkably successful. It pays its workers a decent wage with good benefits, doesn't reward its CEO obscene bonuses, and respects workers' rights. In stark contrast, Walmart pays its workers so little that taxpayers end up paying billions to subsidize their low wages and lousy benefits. Clearly, the federal government should be standing on the side of good employers rather than rewarding exploitative ones that layoff part of their costs on taxpayers.
Last week's election showed that Americans are unhappy with a recovery that does not include them. A Hart poll for the AFLCIO showed that more than four out of five voters (87 percent) reported that they were sinking or treading water in this economy.
Democrats paid the price for that discontent. The big winners, even in red states like Arkansas and Nebraska, were initiatives to raise the minimum wage and guarantee sick leave.
Americans want action to make this economy work for working people. With his historic agreement on carbon emissions with China, the president has made it clear he is prepared to act to move this country forward in vital areas. He has made a similar commitment on immigration reform. He should do the same on what he has called the "defining issue of our time": making this economy work for working people and not simply for the very few.
President Obama now faces a Republican Congress that has blocked any progress on the minimum wage, pay equity, paid family leave, and is intent on repealing health care reforms that have aided millions of low-wage workers. This leaves the president little choice. If progress is to be made, he must take the initiative.
Political support for the workers is building. The leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote the president urging action, arguing, as Co-Chair Rep. Raul Grijalva put it, "The federal government must lead by example to move America beyond a low wage economy." The CPC is collecting signatures for a petition to take to the president. (To sign, go here.)
Over 20 organizations (including my own Campaign for America's Future) and an increasing number of prominent citizen leaders have joined together to endorse the measure while releasing a document: "More than the Minimum, The President's Unfinished Agenda," which lays out the case for action.
Earlier this week, Anna Greenberg reported on a poll done by Greenberg Associates of voters over Election Day. With concerns about the "growing gap between the rich and everyone else" spread across party lines, more than three of four voters (77 percent) support requiring the federal government to give preference in contracting to "businesses that pay their employees a living wage, provide benefits such as healthcare and sick leave and respect worker rights." More than half (53 percent) support this strongly, as opposed to 18 percent that oppose (8 percent strongly). Even 60 percent of conservative republicans support the measure.
This isn't an abstract question. Millions of workers will be lifted onto a road to the middle class immediately if the president acts. And the president can demonstrate concretely what is imperative if we are to rebuild a broad middle class and revive the American dream: that government stand on the side of good employers and their workers rather than on the side of exploitative employers who force taxpayers to subsidize their employees.
The need is apparent. The opportunity clear. Americans across the political spectrum support action. Workers are turning up the heat, even as they struggle to stay afloat. It is time to act.