President Obama acted “boldly” earlier this year when he signed two executive orders boosting contract workers’ wages, but “$10.10 is not enough!” according to chants from some 200 protesters who blocked traffic in front of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington on Thursday morning.
Organized by the advocacy group Good Jobs Nation on the day of fast-food workers’ strikes in 150 cities, the rally drew a senator and a congressman who joined the crowd in linking income inequality of minorities to the current racial tensions over police killings of African-American men during street confrontations.
“We are here today to declare that workers’ lives matters, black lives matter, brown lives matter, all lives matter,” said rally leader Joseph Geevarghese of Good Jobs Nation. “We’re not just protesting racial inequality, we’re protesting economic inequality. We’re asking Obama to live up to words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, ‘What good is it if we can sit at a lunch counter but can’t afford to buy the hamburger.’ ”
Introducing workers from McDonald’s outlets at the National Air and Space Museum and the Pentagon, Geevarghese said, “These workers serve meals to generals at the Pentagon, clean up after Congress leaves town and safeguard our national treasures housed at the Smithsonian. They serve the rich and powerful, but they themselves are poor and powerless. Inequality is at the very heart of the U.S. government, which is America’s leading low-wage employer.”
Thursday’s action, the 11th strike by workers in D.C. federal buildings organized by Good Jobs Nation, demanded that Obama issue a new executive order to federal contractors requiring them to pay workers $15 an hour with benefits and allow them to form a union.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who helped plan Obama’s earlier executive orders, told the crowd, “Enough is enough! Millions of workers who are trying to put bread on the table and working 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty.” They need a union and health care, he said. “The middle class is disappearing in this country while the 5 percent at the top enjoys it all. Workers deserve decent wage and benefits. Let’s continue the struggle.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said the 75-member Progressive Caucus backs the strikers’ demand. He applauded the crowd’s earlier moment of silence in honor of Eric Garner, the New York man who died in July after a police chokehold that prosecutors determined on Wednesday did not warrant charges. “When you’re selling illegal cigarettes, you’re not making enough money to live,” Ellison said, adding that the Ferguson, Mo., neighborhood of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot by a police officer in August, prompting riots, has an unemployment rate of 20 percent, and “is part of the same fight.”
The CEO of McDonald’s “makes $9,200 an hour,” Ellison said. “You can’t tell me workers don’t deserve $15 and a union. This is not about education and globalization but about greed.”
Asked about prospects for a new executive order, an Obama administration official said in an email to Government Executive that “the president firmly believes that the minimum wage should be increased for America's workers and that the federal government can be a leader in that effort. That is why the president acted on his own to ensure that 200,000 federal contract workers will see a wage increase. And it is why he has called on states, cities, businesses to act on their own as well -- with actions taken since the beginning of 2013 set to provide 7 million workers with a wage increase."
The statement noted that Obama “also recognizes the importance of ensuring robust workplace protections for all Americans. That is why he issued the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order to help federal contractors comply with labor laws and make sure those who don’t are held accountable.”
The Professional Services Council, a contractors trade group, told senior administration officials during an October meeting that Obama’s July Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order is “contrary to existing law, would result in exorbitant increased costs to the government and companies, and lacks an executable framework.”