One day after a top Obama administration official deflected a congressman’s call for executive action to raise labor standards for contractors, activists Wednesday announced the filing of a new Department of Labor complaint over alleged wage theft in a government building. The complaint alleges that dozens of workers in D.C.’s government-owned Union Station are owed over $3 million in back pay and damages for rampant failure to pay minimum wage or overtime.
“If a federal contractor thinks that they can steal the pay of workers, it’s very hard to believe that they would voluntarily pay those workers more money,” Rep. Keith Ellison told reporters on a call with Change to Win. “Of course they’re not going to do that.” Ellison and fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva are among 50 members of Congress who’ve urged Obama to wield executive authority to enact more pro-labor standards for federal contracting. Grijalva told Salon last month that he and his colleagues’ months-old urgings had received “no response.”
On Tuesday, Ellison took a different tack: showing up to an Economic Policy Institute panel on which Council of Economic Advisors chair Jason Furman was discussing the federal minimum wage, and asking a question from the audience. After Ellison asked about the prospects for the administration to make a move “outside of legislative action” to help low-wage federal contract workers, Furman answered, “There’s no doubt that the biggest thing we could do is something legislative.” After noting the millions who would be affected by a federal minimum wage increase, Furman said, “I think the biggest question that we should all be asking ourselves is what’s the best way to advance and get to that goal, because that’s what we want to get to ultimately, is everyone, you know, having … that poverty floor, with then the other things on top of that … How can we make sure that there’s no one in this country that’s paid less than $10.10 an hour?”
“Really, it was the most remarkable dodge I’ve ever seen,” Rep. Ellison told Salon Wednesday. Still, he said, “we hope that they’re going to do” an executive order. “We believe it is the right thing to do. It would be federal government leading by example, and that’s all I can say.” Ellison and Grijalva told Salon they still had not received any official response from the White House.
Grijalva told reporters on Wednesday’s call that executive action on contracted workers’ conditions was “a barometer about what we’re going to do about income inequality.” He was joined by Union Station worker Tibebe Ayele, who charged, “My employer paid me $5.86 while I work 60 hours a week,” and said, “Nobody should be treated like I was, especially in a federal building.”
The Department of Labor confirmed receiving the new complaint, which follows a previous complaint regarding alleged wage theft in the also government-owned Ronald Reagan building. Salon received no immediate response to early morning inquiries directed to the Department of Transportation (which owns the building), Ashkenazy Acquisition (to which DOT leases commercial areas), Jones Lang LaSalle (the real estate company that contracts with individual food court vendors), the Office of Management and Budget (which has oversight over federal contracting) and the White House.
As I’ve reported, cleaning and concessions workers in federal buildings have mounted a series of one-day strikes over the past eight months, aiming to force action by Obama. Their effort, Good Jobs Nation, is backed by the Service Employees International Union and its labor federation, Change to Win. The Good Jobs Nation campaign’s most concrete success to date has come directly from one of the contractors, not from the government: According to organizers, about 220 Smithsonian museum workers won union organizing rights and recognition from the food service giant Compass Group, becoming members of the union UNITE HERE (my former employer).
According to a May report from the progressive think tank Demos, around 2 million workers with taxpayer-backed jobs make no more than $12 per hour. According to a December report from Democrats on the Senate’s Health Education Labor and Pensions committee, $81 billion in federal contracts for the previous year went to 49 companies that had drawn nearly 1,800 enforcement actions by the Department of Labor over six years.
“This wage theft issue really dramatizes how serious this whole fight is …” said Ellison. “We will not tolerate it … I’m going to shout it from the rooftops: The fact is, the president can raise the pay of 2 million people right now.”