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Concession Workers Strike the Smithsonian

Amy Traub

The Smithsonian is a national treasure. The world's largest museum and research complex, it encompasses a remarkable 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and nine research centers. In many ways, the institution represents what’s best about America, including free access to our cultural treasures and our collective historical memory. That’s what it’s especially troubling that low-wage workers employed under federal concession agreements went on strike at the Smithsonian Museums this morning. One of the most high-minded American institutions allows the people serving food within its walls to be treated in an un-American way on the job. Workers, organized as Good Jobs Nation, are calling on President Obama to guarantee a living wage and a voice at work.

These workers are part of a larger trend my Demos colleague Robert Hiltonsmith and I documented in our recent study, “Underwriting Bad Jobs: How Our Tax Dollars Are Funding Low-Wage Work and Fueling Inequality.” We found that nearly two million private sector employees working on behalf of America earn wages too low to support a family. That represents hundreds of billions of dollars in federal contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements and property leases—paid for by our tax dollars—going to private companies that pay low wages, provide few benefits, and offer employees little opportunity to work their way into the middle class. 

While our study covered workers across the United States and considered the cost of living nationwide, the situation may be even more grim in Washington DC, where federal contract spending is concentrated. Recent research from the Economic Policy Institute finds that meeting a family’s basic needs is harder in the District of Columbia than in almost any other U.S. city. As Sarah Berday-Sacks at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute notes:

There is a sharp difference between the income of many DC families and the costs of a no-frills family budget. In a family of four, both parents would need to earn an hourly wage of $21.30 to afford basic household expenses. But a DC resident working at minimum wage only earns $8.25 an hour – about 40% of the necessary basic family budget even with two earners. For families with one wage earner, the challenges are even greater. The typical worker in DC earns enough to cover just 60 percent of the basic family budget relying on one earner.

To make matters worse still, a recent complaint to the Department of Labor by workers at the Ronald Reagan federal building alleges that concessionaires in the building are actually paying less than the already grossly inadequate minimum wage and are violating other labor protections.

But while workers’ families are struggling, not everyone working for a federal contractor or concessionaire is poorly paid. Under current law, contractors can be reimbursed by taxpayers for as much as $763,029  in compensation for each top manager. This is one way our current model of federal outsourcing and contracting worsens the trends toward inequality already harming our economy.

At the bottom of the Smithsonian’s website is an image honoring the centennial of Woody Guthrie. There’s little question where this balladeer of ordinary Americans and their strugglesincluding fights for better pay and union representation—would have stood in the current dispute between the Smithsonian and the workers who serve food to its patrons. Officials at the Smithsonian would do well to listen to any of Woody’s directly pro-worker and pro-union songs available for purchase from their own website.  But the most relevant message might come from the Dust Bowl classic, “Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad.”

My children need three square meals a day,

Now, my children need three square meals a day,

My children need three square meals a day, Lord,

And I ain't a-gonna be treated this way.