Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday applauded low-wage federal contract workers, saying their months of protest had paved the way for President Barack Obama’s upcoming executive order to raise the minimum wage for new contractors.
Echoing Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus, congratulated those who had pressed the administration for months to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.
“If there’s one lesson, it’s the importance of organizing,” Ellison said during a conference call with workers. “It was very valuable to our members to stand… with workers who were striking for pay.”
Grijalva called Obama’s action “an important step in dealing with [inequality] issues.”
“The precedent of saying these are public dollars and they’re going to be used for public good… opens up other possibilities,” he said.
Over the past seven months, low-wage workers on federal contracts joined the labor-backed campaign Good Jobs Nation in organized protests demanding wages higher than the average of $8 an hour that almost two million federal contractors receive. The workers, some of whom the government pays less than Washington D.C.’s local minimum wage, staged demonstrations at Union Station, the Ronald Reagan Building, the former U.S. Postal Office, and a handful of Smithsonian museums. From the beginning, the campaign called for Obama to change the minimum wage by executive order.
“Obama finally picked up that pen and did his thing,” said Melissa Roseboro, an employee the Air and Space Museum’s McDonald’s restaurant. “I’ll finally be able to pay my bills.”
Obama’s order, which has not yet been issued but was announced during his State of the Union address, will apply only to new contracts, not to workers operating under existing contracts or to the federal minimum wage for public and private sector workers at large. Republicans have reacted coolly to the move and have warned that raising the minimum wage for all workers, as Obama wants to, will hurt the economy.
“When you raise the cost of something, you get less of it,” House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday. “And we know from increases in the minimum wage in the past that hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans have lost their jobs. And so the very people the president purports to help are the ones who are going to get hurt by this.”
Louis Chiliquinga, who also works at the McDonald’s at the Air and Space Museum, called the previously sporadic 10-cent raises “an offense to the dignity of the workers.”
“Workers need to believe in our fight” he said. “Our first victory isn’t perfect, but if other workers think these results are not enough, its because they haven’t fought hard enough.”
Although details of the coming executive order remain to be seen, Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at the liberal policy group Demos, predicted it will impact hundreds of thousands of workers over the next few years. Obama’s move, she said, “offers huge potential for fostering good jobs.”
“Raising wages on the low end puts that money into the pockets of working people that will spend it on their needs,” she said.