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The President’s Opportunity

The Hill

On July 24, President Obama delivered a speech in Galesburg, IL, to lay out his vision for an economy that works for everyone and what he hopes to do to get us there. During his speech, he acknowledged that gridlock in Washington will likely prevent Congress from providing sensible solutions, but he said, “Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it." I hope the President keeps his word because he has the power to lift two million working Americans out of poverty.  He just has to choose to use it. I work at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Every day at work, I enter this federal building and walk by artifacts and exhibits that are part of our national history: the Emancipation Proclamation, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and even the Greensboro, NC, lunch counter from Woolworth’s, at which brave young men and women participated in sit-ins and forced the company to change its racial discrimination policies.

But what I’m most interested in is what is on exhibit behind the curtain – poverty wages, no benefits, and a path into the middle class that is closed for workers like me. I work at the Stars and Stripes Café, serving food and beverages and keeping the space clean for the visitors to the museum.

But it’s a struggle. What most people don’t know is that I make $10,000 a year providing services on behalf of the federal government. Restaurant Associates, the company that employs me, has a federal contract with the Smithsonian Institution. They operate on federal property, but don’t pay employees like me enough to survive. [...]
We have gone on strike at Union Station, the Ronald Reagan Building, and at the Smithsonian museums – all federal buildings. And there are many more workers like us across the country. In fact, a recent report by the think tank Demos finds that the federal government, through contracts, leases and concessions, is the largest low-wage job creator in the country. These are folks who serve food in federal buildings, sew uniforms for our troops, and transport cargo at our nation’s ports.