In a speech last July, President Obama vowed that “whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it.” On Wednesday, an estimated 175 workers who serve food, sell mementos or do maintenance work in federal buildings in Washington D.C. went on strike for the day. Instead of showing up at their jobs, they showed up in front of the White House, where they urged President Obama to live up to his word.
The strikers are not government employees. Rather, they work for private-sector companies that have been awarded government contracts to operate concessions and provide other services at federal venues including Smithsonian museums, the Ronald Reagan federal office building, and Washington’s Union Station.
Those contracts, worth some $466 billion last year, are often lucrative – for the contractors, that is, but not for many of the workers they hire. In one study, the National Employment Law Project interviewed 500 federal contract employees who serve food, sell merchandise, sew military uniforms and drive trucks, finding that more than 70 percent of them made less than $10 an hour. A separate study by Demos, a progressive think tank, found that 560,000 employees of federal contractors make less than $12 an hour.