On Tuesday, Pope Francis will begin his visit to the United States with an arrival in Washington, D.C. And hundreds of Americans who work in the Capitol building plan to greet him by striking over their low pay.
One thousand workers will be joined by national faith leaders in a religious procession to the Capitol, where they will then conduct a “prayer action” calling on Congress to listen to the Pope’s rhetoric and increase their livelihoods and working conditions. Francis has frequently talked about the plight of the world’s poor, using his first apostolic exhortation to call out income inequality and decry trickle-down economics that exclude the poorest. Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will also speak at the rally.
Sontia Bailey will be among the workers on strike hoping her message reaches the Pope. She’s worked two jobs for the last two and a half years: one in a cafe in the Capitol building and another at Kentucky Fried Chicken. And working those two jobs led to her miscarrying her baby last year. After her baby was pronounced dead in the hospital after an early labor, the doctor told her that it was likely because she was standing on her feet, sometimes for 17 hours a day.
Had she had a healthy pregnancy, her son would now be nearly a year old. “I think about my child 24 hours in a day,” she said. “For me to lose my child from working two jobs, it’s hurtful.”
Things would be different, she feels, if she were to get a $15 hour minimum wage. That would potentially allow her to focus on just one job. “It’d take a whole lot of weight lifted off of me if I only had just one,” she said.
When she strikes on Tuesday, it will be her second time walking off of the job to demand at $15 an hour and the ability to form a union. “I’m standing up for what I believe in and what other people believe in,” she said. “I’m sharing my story because I know somewhere, someplace out there that one woman, two women, three women went through what I went through and are probably still going through it. So I’m standing up for all women.”
She isn’t Catholic herself, but she still believes in Pope Francis’s message. She and her fellow Capitol workers sent him a letter describing their situation and asking to meet with him. Even if they don’t get a meeting, though, Bailey hopes that when he speaks to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, he mentions people like her. “I hope in his speech that he points fingers,” she said. “He speaks about economic inequality, which is real… When he speaks to the Congress, hopefully it touches them.”
“If I don’t get to physically see him, I’ve met him spiritually with the letter,” she said. “The Pope is our hope.”
Tuesday’s strike is the 14th that those who work for contractors serving food and cleaning the buildings in the nation’s capitol have conducted so far in their quest for higher pay. Their actions helped push President Obama to issue an executive order early last year requiring that any companies that contract with the federal government, such as those that employ the workers in the Capitol, pay at least $10.10 an hour. But workers have kept pushing for even higher pay, as earning less than $12 an hour isn’t enough for most to support their families. These contracts make the federal government the largest low-wage employer. At the same time, the executives at these companies make nearly $24 billion per year.
The poverty wages earned by the people working in the Capitol have also gained attention as they’ve shared their stories of being homeless, surviving on food stamps, and struggling to raise their children.