New Rosies Strike For Low-Wage Workers

image003President Obama, business and labor leaders, legislators, advocates and others are meeting in Washington, D.C., on Monday as part of the White House Summit on Working Families. Yet just down the road, low-wage, federally contracted women workers are striking to tell the President that the government is not doing enough to support them and their families.

Women will walk off their jobs at the Pentagon, the Smithsonian Museums, Union Station and over 40 other locations and join a protest at the National Zoo. This strike follows seven others sponsored by the Good Jobs Nation campaign over the past year, including strikes at several Smithsonian museums and at the Pentagon.

The Good Jobs Nation campaign fights for fair treatment of low-wage workers employed by companies that receive federal funding. These workers are asking President Obama and the federal government to protect them from wage theft, pregnancy and disability discrimination, racism and many other forms of mistreatment at their workplaces.

President Obama issued an executive order in February raising the minimum wage for federally-contracted workers to $10.10 an hour, but in a subsequent letter to the president, members of the Good Jobs Nation campaign pointed out the significant hurdles faced by low-wage workers that have yet to be overcome. They wrote,

The U.S. Government depends on our work to keep federal buildings and property open and operating. We mop floors, empty trash cans, greet tourists, prune bushes and mow lawns, cook and serve meals, and even shuttle officials to and from meetings. Our work generates revenue for taxpayers and profits for our employers.

In return, we received only poverty wages, zero job benefits, disrespect and neglect.

The strike at the National Zoo comes on the heels of a report released last week by the public policy organization Demos demonstrating that the government is the largest funder of women and people of color working low-wage jobs.The report, titled Underwriting Good Jobs, focuses on the 8 million workers who depend on low-wage jobs at firms that receive significant amounts of federal funding, and it calls for executive actions that could propel these workers and their families into the middle class.

While the government continues to pay poverty-level wages, the report estimates that around $7.65 billion in taxpayer funds contribute to exorbitant executive salaries within these companies. The pay ratio between CEOs and average workers in firms across the nation was 272-to-1 in 2012.

As has been well-documented, women and people of color are overwhelmingly affected by these pay gaps. The Demos analysis calculate that women account for almost three-fourths of federally funded, low-wage workers, and people of color account for nearly half of this workforce. These inequities are especially notable within the rapidly growing home health care services industry, where 90 percent of low-income workers are women.

“The minimum wage is not enough for working moms like me,” said Monica Martinez, a single mom of two children and a federally supported worker, in a press call. Because Martinez only earns $12 an hour, she must work a second job in order to pay for her child’s college education, her own continuing higher education in computer science and her household bills.

Aside from better pay, Martinez also said she needs access to collective bargaining and more vacation days and paid sick days—without which, she said, she has barely enough time to spend with her family.

In order to assist workers such as Martinez, the report calls for the federal government to use its spending power to raise millions of people out of poverty.

UGJ Fig BIn order to accomplish that goal, Underwriting Good Jobs proposes a four-pronged approach that would likely be carried out through executive action (which is  necessary in light of congressional inaction around these issues). Such an order would complement President Obama’s other recent executive actions to raise the minimum wage for federally contracted employees and to protect workers who discuss their incomes—an action especially important for women seeking income equality.

The “Good Jobs Policy” approach outlined in the report calls for all federally contracted firms to enforce workers’ bargaining rights, offer living wages and benefits such as paid sick leave, demonstrate that they are compliant with existing labor laws and that they limit the salaries of CEOs and other executives in order to reduce the CEO-to-worker pay ratio to 50-to-1.

These actions could positively impact more than 21 million family members of federal workers. Demos estimates that the billions in generated wages would increase the GDP by $30.5 billion per year and increase federal tax earnings by $6.8 billion. On top of the monetary gains, a “Good Jobs Policy” could also save significant federal spending on Medicaid and other federal safety net programs.

Moreover, the government would not necessarily have to finance the majority of these pay increases. The report points out that federally contracted firms—which earned a net profit of $1.2 trillion in 2012—could easily cover the $34.1 billion in additional wages without government assistance. Additionally, the increase in productivity and savings from reduced executive salaries would make implementing these requirements more financially feasible for these companies.

UGJ Fig 10

The report highlights similar executive actions in the past that have benefited low-wage workers. Such actions include President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s support of workers’ unions and policies against racial discrimination in the workplace. During that time, the face of many low-wage working women became Rosie the Riveter, the muscular heroine of many World War II propaganda campaigns.

“When Rosie spoke out, FDR listened,” said Liz Watson, senior counsel and director of workplace justice for women at the National Women’s Law Center, on the press call. “Today Rosie is not a riveter. She’s a woman like Monica.”

Watson continued by noting that, as with FDR, President Obama must lead by example and defend the millions of low-wage working women.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), also on the press call, said the progressive caucus of the House supports these actions and plans to submit a proposal to the White House that would focus on low-wage workers employed by federal contractors. Ellison said he is unsure of how the President would respond to a proposal for executive action, but the representative pointed to President Obama’s past actions as evidence that he would likely be sympathetic.

Ellison underscored that he supported “Good Jobs Policy” as means of significantly reducing gender inequality in the workforce:

Women are partners. Women are parents. So when you pay a woman less, what you’re really doing is paying a whole family less. If Congress won’t [enact a good jobs policy], the President must.

First photo is promotion of a low-wage worker strike held Monday, courtesy of the Good Jobs Nation campaign. 

The second chart depicts the percentage of workers in various industries who are women and people of color (dark blue bar), and the percentage of low-wage workers in various industries who are women and people of color (light blue bar). Courtesy of Demos

The third chart depicts the change in the distribution of federally-supported workers among a variety of incomes if the “Good Jobs Policy” were signed into law, courtesy of Demos



Margaret Nickens is a senior at Brown University and an intern with Ms. magazine. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter



Margaret Nickens is a senior at Brown University and an intern with Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.