The Fight for a Living Wage
Standing in front of her workplace, Union Station, Lucia Ramirez addressed President Obama and Congress directly. During a July 18 protest, her message was this: low-wage, federally contracted workers badly need a raise.
Ramirez, 55, has been cleaning Union Station for more than 21 years and makes $8.75 an hour with no benefits. She said she struggles to pay for housing and worries about ever being able to retire. She recently went on strike with Good Jobs Nation, an advocacy grouping calling for an increase in the wages of federally-contracted workers.
“I’m calling on President Obama to be a good landlord,” she said, in a reference to the President’s executive authority over the wages of federally contracted workers. She demanded that the president reform wage regulations for federally-contracted workers like herself.
And hers is far from a lone voice. In loud marches and colorful protests, the struggle for a so-called “living wage” has spilled out into the streets of Washington in recent weeks. Inspired by the fight, workers and advocates from a variety of workplaces and groups have been speaking out. Some come from the ranks of low-paid contract workers who clean and maintain federal office buildings and land- marks like Union Station and the Smithsonian Institution.
Others have been weighing in on a high- stakes city council debate over whether retail giants such as WalMart should be required to pay better wages to their workers. They are asking for changes in federal and local laws that they say would enable them to earn enough to pay for housing, food and other necessities in the costly D.C. region.
At a July 24 press conference, Ramirez spoke about the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would
gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and index it to inflation so it will keep pace with the cost of living.
The event marked four years since Congress last increased the national minimum wage, which currently stands at $7.25. Earlier this year, the president himself said the federal minimum wage should be increased to at least $9 an hour and indexed to inflation. His remarks helped advance a mini-mum wage discussion in Congress.
Some Congressional backers of a federal increase were on hand at the July 24 press conference. They spoke of the significant impact they believe the proposed increase could have for millions of low-wage workers and their families.
“This increase means the difference in being able to afford childcare, transportation, and put healthy food on the table without having to rely on public assistance,” Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD) said.
But some proponents of living wage re- form said the issue requires more immediate action. Joseph Geevarghese, Deputy Director of Change to Win, a sponsor of Good Jobs Nation, said he believes mini- mum wage is unlikely to pass given the current makeup of Congress.
“We face a widening income inequality and a growing low-wage workforce,” Geevarghese said. “We
can’t wait for Congress.”
Instead, Good Jobs Nation and other living wage advocacy groups are calling for President Obama to issue an executive order that would establish a living wage for federally contracted workers for food service, cleaning, and retail companies that contract in government owned buildings such as Union Station, the Smithsonian and Reagan executive building.
Due to the fact that contract workers are hired through executive agencies, the President could raise and enforce work- place standards for these workers by declaring that the government will prefer companies with higher “good job” stan- dards, including wages, when establishing contracts.
Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), chairman of the Progressive Caucus and a supporter of Good
Jobs Nation, said he believes the government should set the standard of paying fair wages for private companies.
“America should be a place where hard work pays,” Ellison said. “People expect to be treated fairly
when working for the government, and they should be.”
During the July 18 Union Station pro- test, Rev. Michael Livingston, National Director of Public Policy and Interfaith Worker Justice Washington Office, de- scribed how the meals in the capitol’s cafeterias are subsidized for members of Congress but the workers who serve them that food are not paid living wages.
Geevarghese said these low-wage, federally contracted workers aren’t just in DC and are a much
larger demographic than citizens may expect.
“The federal government is the largest low-wage job creator and spends more than a trillion dollars
on federal contracts. A lot of that goes to big corporations who pay workers poverty wages and so
they have to go to the government for Section 8 housing, food stamps and healthcare. So taxpayers are billed twice,” he said.
It’s the same argument proponents of the D.C. City Council’s Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013 are making.
On July 10, the D.C. City Council approved a living wage bill requiring large retailers to pay their workers a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. Advocates were thrilled. But Wal-Mart officials have warned the law could jeopardize plans to open six stores in the city. Mayor Vincent Gray, who has backed the new stores as a source of jobs and neighborhood revitalization, is weighing whether to sign or to veto the bill.
If approved by the mayor, the bill would require retailers who make more than $1 billion in profits to pay their employees $12.50 an hour minus benefits. Mike Wilson, an organizer with Respect DC, said this will allow low-wage families to share in the recent economic boom the local economy and large retailers are seeing.
“This will help give people a chance to live here and support themselves. These workers will be able to consume more so it will boost the whole economy and workers will be able to share more in the profits of these companies,” Wilson said.
Some opponents of the legislation have disagreed with targeting large retailers and say changes are needed for retailers as a whole. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target, AutoZone, Lowe’s, Walgreens and Macy’s have expressed their disapproval of the bill in part because of its targeting of large retailers. Alex Barron, a regional general manager for Wal-Mart, also said in an editorial that the legislation would result in fewer jobs and higher prices in the District.
On the other hand, Rebekah Peeples Massengill, author of “Wal-Mart Wars: Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century” and a lecturer at Princeton University, predicts that while the legislation only directly addresses large retailers, it will have an affect on the District as a whole.
“Wal-Mart changes affect so many other workers and impact other employers,” Rebekah said. “It does have a depressing effect on wages at other retailers when it enters a market.”
Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and member of Faith Strategies said he believes targeting large retailers is acceptable because the City Council knows they can afford to pay their employees more. When Hagler met Wal-Mart executives during their visits to community and church groups when the company began their move into the city two years ago, Hagler said they promised to pay a starting wage of $13 an hour.
“The Wal-Mart CEO makes $11,000 an hour, that’s the hypocrisy of Wal-Mart,” Hagler said. “When I asked them more recently about them pushing back on $12.50 when they promised us $13 two years ago they said, ‘Guess we don’t like regulations.’”