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The Low Wages of Federal Contract Workers

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Mike Elk has a really great piece on the 1-day federal contract workers strike. It’s simple. First, our government should not be allowed to contract with employers who have a history of labor law violations. Second, all workers toiling for the federal government, whether directly or through subcontracts, should make a living wage. An excerpt:

“I work at Quick Pita in the food court of the Ronald Reagan Building. I work nearly 12 hours every day serving lunch to the thousands of people who work in the building. But I am not here to tell you how hard I work. I am here to tell you that my employer does not follow the law,” testified Antonio Vanegas before a hearing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus yesterday.

Vanegas is one of 100,000 low-wage workers in the Washington, DC area, according to Good Jobs Nation, many of whom are employed by federal contractors or in federally owned buildings like Union Station, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the Ronald Reagan Building. He and about 100 of his colleagues went on a one-day strike yesterday in order to draw attention to their low pay. Despite provisions in the federal Service Contract Act stating that federal contract workers like Antonio Vanegas should make at least the local prevailing wage, up until a few weeks ago Vanegas was making $6.50 an hour–less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and well below the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25. Additionally, Vanegas works 60 hours a week, but claims he receives no overtime pay for hours he works past 40, in violation of the Federal Labor Standards Act.

“There are many workers in the food court who are like me, who don’t make enough to pay the rent, put food on our tables and take care of our families,” said Vanegas in his testimony. “That’s why I’m here and why so many workers like me are on strike today. We want the federal government to be a good landlord and rent prime retail space to employers who follow the law. We want the government to lead by example and guarantee that all workers who do work on behalf of the federal government earn a legal and living wage.”

This strike has made an impact within the Democratic caucus. Whether Nancy Pelosi’s vow to bring it to Obama leads to the president actually doing something about it, I don’t know. But he needs to. Again, raising the working standards of federal workers is something he can do without congressional approval, so there are zero good reasons why he should not act.

Allow me to also note how subcontracting is a malignant plague upon the working conditions of all people. Whether it is the Gap subcontracting in Bangladesh to avoid any responsibility to the workers making its products or the federal government looking to cut costs by outsourcing labor, subcontracting hurts working-class people. There is no good reason why it should exist. Corporations and governments can employ people directly.

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