When a recent study by the Russell Sage Foundation revealed that the median American household had lost a third of its net worth in the decade between 2003 and 2013, while those at the very top saw significant gains, it was the latest evidence that the economy has gotten so out of balance that only a dramatic intervention can right it.
That is why commuters heading to Capitol Hill on July 29 morning saw dozens of low-wage workers, mostly women, outside Union Station in a protest to demand that President Obama sign a “good jobs” executive order.
Such an executive order would use the power of the federal purse – its $1.3 trillion a year in purchases – to increase wages and to improve working conditions for millions of working-class employees. Unlike the February executive order that President Obama signed that would set a $10.10 minimum wage for new federal contracts, which would directly affect 2 million workers, the good jobs executive order would directly affect tens of millions of private-sector workers of companies that compete for federal contracts.
(The ralliers got only some of what they wanted with the president’s July 31 executive order. See the related article).
At the rally, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn), said that as co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus he sent a letter to President Obama outlining what the executive order should accomplish. The stipulations include the ability of workers to organize a union if they so choose and labor protections if they choose to strike. The letter also calls for what Ellison called “fair compensation” for workers. “I don’t believe that any federal contractor that doesn’t want to pay people a livable wage deserves a federal contract,” Ellison said.
Ellison during the rally drew a direct connection between the ability of workers to collectively bargain and the share of gross national product that went to workers. So did Joseph Geevarghese, director of the Good Jobs Nation campaign, in an interview at the rally.
“President Roosevelt in 1941 said that if you want to do business with the federal government, you must provide good union jobs,” he said. That action, he continued, stood on the foundation of legislation passed by Congress that gave workers a new set of labor protections. That combination of actions “built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.”
Ideally, Congress would lead on shoring up bargaining power for workers, just as it led in the 1930s. But Republicans in Congress are pulling in the opposite direction. For years, Republicans worked to sabotage the National Labor Relations Board, hoping to prevent the board from issuing rulings in labor disputes that would go against employers.
Most Republicans also favor eliminating prevailing wage requirements on federal contracts. Those have existed since the passage of the Davis-Bacon Act in 1931, which was passed precisely so that the federal bidding process did not facilitate a wage race to the bottom. Nine Republicans recently signed onto a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would allow federal contractors to drive down wages in the guise of lowering costs for taxpayers. Those senators are Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and David Vitter (R-La.).
For the record, there are bills that would do just the opposite. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton announced at the rally that she had introduced the ROSIE (for Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy) Act, using as inspiration the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter. Under that bill, the federal government would generally be limited to contracting with businesses certified as “good jobs model employers” based on their paying living wages, the quality of their benefits, their compliance with labor laws and the ability of their employees to engage in collective bargaining.
“These good jobs would allow workers and their families to live in dignity without relying on public assistance or private charity, and would pay enough to provide for subsistence, healthcare, education, housing and savings, as well as enough disposable income to allow workers to enjoy quality time off with their loved ones,” Norton said in a statement. “Federal purchasing power can and should be used to rebuild the middle class … and should be used to narrow the growing gulf between the richest one percent of the population and ordinary working families, which is threatening the survival of our participatory democracy.”
This is as sharp as dividing lines get. Should the power of the federal government be used to elevate worker wages or drive them down? Do we want to rebalance the economy and reverse the shrinkage of middle class net worth, or do we want to use government policy to move even more wealth upward to the already wealthy?
It is not just an economic or political question; it is also a moral one, as several of the clergy members who joined Tuesday’s protest pointed out. Rev. J. Herbert Nelson was among a small group of clergy who had set up a table at the demonstration laden with bread – symbolizing, as one of the ministers put it, “the God of abundance” – and led the protestors in a chant of “No justice, no peace.”
“We have allowed greed to perpetuate a class of working poor in this country, even though there is easily enough for everyone to have what we each need,” he said in a statement. “Worker pay has stagnated while productivity and wealth have skyrocketed. This is our shared failure and it is a sin.
“We believe God has provided enough, and workers’ wages and compensation should reflect that reality,” he wrote. “We need executive action from the White House that will set a federal precedent in the marketplace to strengthen jobs, workers, and their families.”
As Rev. Sèkinah Hamlin of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative said, lifting up a loaf in the air, “Share the bread, Mr. President. Share the bread.”