Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑VT) threw down the gauntlet for Congress and President Obama Tuesday morning, joining hundreds of low-wage contract workers from federal buildings who are striking in advance of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C.
Speaking to the assembled workers at a nearby Catholic Church, Sanders urged U.S. lawmakers to take seriously the pontiff’s message on “social and economic justice.” He also challenged President Obama to sign an executive order raising the wage for federal contractors to at least $15 an hour and allowing them to unionize.
“There is no justice in America when the largest low-wage employer is not McDonads, it is not Burger King, it is not Wal-Mart, it is the United States government,” he told the cheering crowd. “The United States government has got to become a model employer.”
Sanders told The Hill that as “one of the great moral forces on earth today,” any statement by the Pope on the issue of wealth inequality during his trip to D.C. would be influential.
The rallied workers later marched to the steps of the Capitol, where they held a prayer service asking for lawmakers to listen to the Pope’s words. Some workers also organized a brief sit-in at the Senate cafes.
The strike, organized by Good Jobs Nation, had been planned as early as last week to coincide with the Pope’s visit, whose various statements on inequality, neoliberalism and economic justice have pegged him as an ally of the labor movement. Striking workers had written a letter to Pope Francis asking him to meet with them in addition to those in power.
“We may be invisible to the wealthy and powerful we serve everyday — but we know we are worthy of a more abundant life as children of God,” the letter reads.
Although President Obama granted federal contractors a wage increase to $10.10 in February 2014, the workers charge this is not enough in a city that, according to one study, requires a salary of $108,092 to live “comfortably” in. Reports abound of cleaners and cooks resorting to food stamps, working second jobs and even going homeless as a result. Critics charge that the federal government bears large responsibility for this by awarding hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts, grants, loans and more to companies that pay low wages and offer no benefits.
According to a report from Demos, nearly 2 million federal contractors currently make less than $12 an hour, far less than MIT’s calculated living wage for D.C. of $20.27. At the same time, according financial data analyzed by OpenSecrets.org, the median net worth of U.S. lawmakers climbed to over $1 million.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.