Unions Target Federal Contractors In New Strategy

Joel Mejia was a low wage worker under federal contractEvery day, foreign aid workers, federal agents, and public policy scholars go to work in the palatial Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Ave., the most expensive federal building ever constructed. So did Joel Mejia, a 23-year-old Mexican immigrant (right) -- for $9 an hour and no benefits, in the building's food court.

On Tuesday, Mejia called for a living wage, benefits and respect on the job as part of a rally organized by a new union-backed campaign called Good Jobs Nation. It follows on the heels of other, similar union-organized labor actions at Walmart and fast food restaurants. This time the organizers took on an entire sector: federal contractors.

Like many of these other rallies, organizers and their allies in the community made up the lion's share of the picketers. While organizers said 400 people took part in the daylong action, it wasn't clear how many of those were actual low-wage workers. Travis Dupree, an organizer with OurDC, one of the groups behind the campaign, said he saw around 30 workers at one of the protest sites Tuesday morning. A manager at Mejia's former restaurant, Nook, said that her entire staff had showed up to work, but The Washington Post reported that a pita shop in the same building had to close because so many workers had walked out.

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It's unclear whether low worker turnout indicates disinterest, or fear. Mejia says that when he began discussing labor conditions with co-workers a few weeks ago, his hours were reduced from 35 to 25 a week, and when a metro delay made him late for work on Monday, he was fired. Mejia believes that his employer was waiting for him to make a mistake.

There's a lot of hand-wringing over federal employee pay, but workers such as Mejia rarely enter the conversation. Mejia isn't on the federal government's payroll. But he works on federal property, for a federal contractor that gets taxpayer dollars.

According to Demos, a liberal advocacy group, the federal government funds more low-wage workers (defined as earning $12 or less an hour, or $24,000-a-year for full-time) than Walmart and McDonald's combined. The majority do not work strictly for federal contractors though. Medicare and Medicaid dollars underwrite 1.2 million of these paychecks, out of the 2 million total. The Good Jobs Nation campaign focuses on those who work for private companies contracted by the federal government, or who work concessions in federal buildings.

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Labor activists have been rallying on behalf of workers at Walmart and McDonald's, too. But Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst for Demos, believes there's an added moral dimension when it comes to workers like Mejia. "These are people supported by our taxes, work we decided was worthy of federal funding," says Traub.

There's another, strategic, reason for advocates to target federal contractors: They can appeal to President Obama directly.

When it comes to worker-friendly legislation, such as raising the minimum wage, activists know that going through a Republican-controlled Congress is an unlikely proposition. So the striking federal contractors are calling for Obama to sign an executive order demanding that all federal contractors pay their employees a living wage.

"I'm hoping to get the president's attention, to make him know this is happening on federal property," said Mejia, who had to hold a second evening job just to make ends meet. "He's the landlord of the building I work in."

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The federal government has historically held itself out as a model employer. When it still was legal to discriminate against employees based on race, for example, President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order banning the practice in the federal government and among federal contractors. In recent years, several cities also have passed living-wage ordinances, usually requiring businesses that receive state assistance to pay their workers a few dollars above the federal minimum wage.

Obama made his sympathies with low-wage workers clear in his State of the Union address in February, saying, "Tonight, let's declare that, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty. ..."

But his proposal was to raise the federal minimum wage to $9, significantly below what most advocates consider a "living wage."

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