Service workers at four buildings in Washington, D.C., are going on strike Tuesday, putting a human face on a recent report about federally-contracted workers stuck with unlivable wages. Starting at the Ronald Reagan Building and moving through two Smithsonian museums and Union Station, the city’s commuter rail and Amtrak hub, the strikes are the latest in a wave of low-wage worker actions designed to make service sector employment economically sustainable. The local progressive radio station WeAct Radio is maintaining a livestream of the day’s actions here.
The strike follows similar actions by private-sector workers in other major cities. Fast food and retail workers in New York City, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago have walked off the job in recent weeks to demand wage hikes. Like those workers, the men and women striking in the capital Tuesday are struggling to tread water economically, even while working full-time. The difference for these most recent participants in the spreading service worker action is that they are paid, indirectly, by the federal government.
As the policy think tank Demos reported in early May, federal dollars are connected to more low-wage jobs than Walmart and McDonalds combined:
We find that nearly two million private sector employees working on behalf of America earn wages too low to support a family, making $12 or less per hour. […]
These workers represent a large spectrum of occupations, from workers sewing military uniforms to hospital aides funded by Medicare, security guards with contracts to protect public buildings, and food cart vendors at the National Zoo.
President Obama has proposed hiking the federal minimum hourly wage to $9, from its current $7.25 level. While opponents point to gradual increases from 2008-2010 as sufficient, the reality is the minimum wage still has less buying power than it did in the 1970s.
This public policy failure is also a major component of the gender wage gap that persists today. Working Americans in six major cities are now organizing to combat Congress’ failure to ensure that service work is livable.