Government contract workers strike for a living wage and unionization of their jobs

Who employs the most low-wage workers in the US?

According to a report published by Demos, it’s the US government.

About 2 million workers, who provide services funded by the federal government either directly through outsourcing contracts or through grants and subsidies to companies that perform work for the government or the public, make $12 an hour or less.

About 500 of these workers on April 15 staged a one-day strike in Washington DC to demand better pay and the unionization of their jobs.

They were joined by another 500 supporters at a rally at the Capitol.

“(These workers) feed the generals in the Pentagon, they also personally serve US senators, some of whom are running to be the next president of the United States,” said Joseph Geevarghese of Good Jobs Nation, the organizer of the April 22 strike at the rally. “These workers strike because they want our nation to know that their taxpayer dollars are keeping everyday Americans in poverty.”

In addition to the Senate and Pentagon, striking workers work at the Department of Education, Smithsonian museums, the National Zoo, the Capitol Visitors Service, and for the National Park Services providing custodial, maintenance, food, transportation, and other services.

They work for companies such as Compass Global, an international outsourcing company, Sabree Environmental and Construction, Inc., which describes itself as “a full service provider and defense contractor with multifaceted capabilities,” and Open Top Sightseeing, owned by Big Bus Tours, another international company that provides bus sightseeing service all over the world.

The striking workers want President Obama to sign an executive order that will ensure that government contracts are awarded to companies that pay a living wage of at least $15 an hour, provide benefits, and respect collective bargaining rights. They’re calling their proposed executive order the Model Employer Executive Order.

One of the workers on strike is Bertrand Olotara, who wrote an opinion piece recently published in the Guardian.

“I am walking off my job because I want the presidential hopefuls to know that I live in poverty,” writes Olotara, who makes $12 an hour as a cook in the Senate office building.

Olotara has to work a second job and still has trouble making ends meet. He’s a single father and relies on food stamps to keep his children fed.

Olotara works for Compass Global.

Another worker who was on strike is Sonia Chavez who along with her husband cleans offices in the Education Department building.

Officially Chavez works for Ace Janitorial Services, but according to Good Jobs Nation, Ace is a front for the more high-profile Sabree Construction and Environmental.

Chavez, who is paid only $9.50 an hour, has charged Sabree with wage theft and she along with her co-workers are seeking $472,500 in back pay that they are owed.

“My husband and I are federal contract workers who clean the office of the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan,” said Chavez at a media conference. “The Secretary of Education likes to speak about a “Race to the Top” on education. But the truth is we also need a “Race to the Top” on wages.”

Providing services for the government hasn’t always been low-wage, low-benefit work.

Before the government began privatizing many of these services, some of the work paid decent wages, came with benefits, and allowed some workers to establish a toe hold in the middle class.

“Jobs that provided a path to the middle class for million in the past are now creating a vast army comprised of the working poor,” reads a report on government contract labor published by Good Jobs Nation.

Women and people of color have been especially hard hit since the government joined the race to the bottom.

According to Good Jobs Nation, 70 percent of the federal government’s contract workers are women and 45 percent are people of color.

74 percent of the government’s contract workers make $10 an hour or less, 60 percent receive no benefits, and 36 percent receive some form of public assistance.

“Our nation cannot boast of being the land of the free, while allowing companies to pay wages that enslave its citizens to debt, poverty, and an inability to provide a decent living for themselves, their children and generations to come,” said Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of public witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington Office, at the strike’s media conference.

“The US government should not be America’s biggest low wage job creator,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders at the media conference. Sanders went on to say that “if you work 40 hours a week, you should make enough to take care of your kids and your family.”