Low-Wage Federal Contract Workers Welcome Pope’s Visit—With a Strike

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined the rally in support of the contractors. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined the rally in support of the contractors. Jim Cole/AP

­Facing the Cap­it­ol, the work­ers knelt in pray­er. Heads bowed, arms out­stretched, they prayed for Pope Fran­cis’s mes­sage of eco­nom­ic justice to res­on­ate at one of the cent­ral points of Amer­ica’s polit­ic­al power. They held a fake pope­mo­bile plastered with Fran­cis’s pic­ture, quotes from the pontiff, and a mes­sage to the pope: “Low-Wage Work­ers Wel­come You!”

Wash­ing­ton: Pope­mania has be­gun.

Just hours before Fran­cis landed on Amer­ic­an soil, low-wage Cap­it­ol and fed­er­al con­tract work­ers or­gan­ized by Good Jobs Na­tion went on strike Tues­day morn­ing. Their de­mand: $15 an hour and a uni­on.

This isn’t the first time that Cap­it­ol and fed­er­al con­tract work­ers have gone on strike to raise their pay to what they say would be a liv­ing wage. But with Fran­cis—an equal­ity ad­voc­ate with one of the largest soap­boxes—al­most in their midst, they seized the mo­ment to rally again, as many oth­er act­iv­ists will do in hopes that the pontiff will men­tion their cause dur­ing his first vis­it to the United States.

Earli­er this month, more than 40 Cap­it­ol con­tract work­ers sent a let­ter to Fran­cis, ask­ing him to meet with them. “We want you to know that even though we serve the wealthy and the power­ful in the Con­gress, we earn so little that we live in ut­ter poverty,” the let­ter states.

Stor­ies of this poverty—of Charles Glad­den work­ing in a Sen­ate of­fice build­ing yet be­ing home­less, of Son­tia Bailey get­ting paid more at KFC than at the Cap­it­ol—have gained at­ten­tion in re­cent months.

The morn­ing began with a pro­ces­sion to the Luther­an Church of the Re­form­a­tion. The par­ti­cipants sang Bob Mar­ley lyr­ics (“Every little thing gonna be al­right”). They held signs with mes­sages for the pontiff: “Pope Fran­cis, Wel­come to the Cap­it­ol of In­equal­ity;” “Pope Fran­cis, We Serve Sen­at­ors, Our Kids Are Poor;” and more.

Then, dozens of par­ti­cipants filed in­to the church, filling its pews. Spir­itu­al lead­ers and ad­voc­ates spoke. Cap­it­ol con­tract work­ers spoke. And an avid fight­er to in­crease the min­im­um wage, pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Sen. Bernie Sanders, spoke.

He ad­dressed the same crowd in a sim­il­ar fash­ion as he has in the past, eli­cit­ing cheers as he shook his fist and raised his voice, telling the crowd that the “United States of Amer­ica today is the richest coun­try in the his­tory of the world, but most Amer­ic­ans don’t un­der­stand that or feel that be­cause most of the wealth and most of the in­come is go­ing to a hand­ful of people at the top.”

But first, Sanders in­voked the pontiff: “Today, as we wel­come Pope Fran­cis to the United States and U.S. Cap­it­ol, I hope that every mem­ber of Con­gress and the pres­id­ent will heed his call for so­cial and eco­nom­ic justice.”

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