Food service and janitorial staff at the Pentagon are going on strike Wednesday morning, opening a new front in the ongoing fight to get President Obama to end the federal government’s practice of paying poverty wages to contract employees at federal facilities.
The Pentagon employees’ walk-out follows similar strikes by service workers at federally owned, privately operated facilities in Washington, D.C., such as the Ronald Reagan Building, Union Station, and the Smithsonian museum food courts. It also comes after wage theft charges against employers at the Reagan Building and the train station. The expansion of the campaign to the Pentagon comes almost exactly eight months after the first strikes led to retaliatory firings by employers, indicating that efforts to intimidate workers did not succeed.
The workers in question are on the payroll of companies like Dunkin Donuts and Taco Bell, but in a sense their real employer is the federal government. The government hires fast food, retail, security, and janitorial companies to service contracts for federal properties. Those contracts give the government a chance to set wage and hour terms for the on-the-ground workers who will actually cook the food and haul the trash. Federal contracts of this sort actually prop up more low-wage jobs than notoriously low-paying companies McDonald’s and Walmart combined. At present, three in four of these workers make less than $10 per hour, and four in 10 rely upon public assistance despite working a full-time job. The same contracts funnel a total of $24 billion per year to the CEOs of the companies that pay their workers so poorly to staff public facilities.
Unlike millions of other low-wage employees, the ones fulfilling federal service contracts can get a raise without an act of Congress. The workers, backed by a group of about 17 House progressives, want President Obama to exercise his executive authority to improve their pay and get taxpayers out of the business of paying poverty wages. The administration has kept quiet on the topic for months as the congressional progressives who favor the move have gotten louder and begun criticizing the president’s inaction, and both workers and lawmakers hope Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address will include an announcement about raising federal contract worker wages with the stroke of a pen.
The eight-month federal worker campaign has played out in the shadow of much larger coast-to-coast strikes by fast food and Walmart workers, who likely hope their activism has emboldened a president who once famously pledged to walk picket lines alongside workers.