One of my sharpest memories of living in Washington, D.C., was walking with hundreds of janitors and food service workers—nearly all of them Black and Latinx—almost five years ago today.
What struck me most was their courage. They were on a one-day strike from the Capitol, National Air and Space Museum, and other federal buildings, going up against the most powerful institution in the world: the U.S. federal government.
Their demands were simple: $15 an hour and the right to form a union. But the powerful government contractors they worked for—like the multi-billion-dollar corporations Sodexo and Aramark—weren’t budging.
Well, that courage just paid off.
On Tuesday, President Biden signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federally contracted workers to $15 an hour.
With the stroke of a pen, up to 390,000 low-wage federal workers will have more money in their pockets during a pandemic. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) calculated that the average annual pay increase for affected year-round workers will be up to $3,100.
EPI also highlighted the social justice that comes with paying contracted out workers what they deserve. Roughly half of those who will see raise are women and roughly half are Black or Latinx.
This isn’t surprising. Public employment has long helped equalize American society.
For both men and women, the median wage earned by Black workers is significantly higher in the public sector than in private industry.
But years of contracting out has chipped away at this racial justice. Because privatization is a race to the bottom for contracted out workers, racial inequality and downward occupational mobility in the public sector are increasingly mirroring those typically seen in the private sector.
That’s why the executive order is much-needed good news. But, as the National Employment Law Project (NELP) argues, the Biden-Harris administration should follow through on the workers’ other demands.
Like simply paying them what they’re owed. NELP writes: “The government itself found that over the course of just five years, workers on federal contracts suffered over $220 million in stolen wages. Most of the violations were in occupations such as facilities maintenance, janitorial and security services, office administration, and trash disposal. These are occupations that employ significant numbers of women as well as Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous workers.”
Regardless, this executive order coupled with the Biden-Harris administration’s new White House task force on worker power and organizing are a great start.
Photo by U.S. Secretary of Defense.