At MLK March, Renewed Call For Obama Executive Order on Wages

Bruce Vail

Alvin Turner, a veteran of the 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike, speaking at a Change to Win panel on the King's legacy for labor. (Change to Win)

WASH­ING­TON, D.C. — On the eve of a march to com­mem­o­rate Dr. Mar­tin Luther King’s I have a dream” speech, labor and civ­il rights activists are call­ing on Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma to hon­or King with an exec­u­tive order that would raise wages for as many as two mil­lion workers.

One of the most poignant calls came Wednes­day from Alvin Turn­er, a vet­er­an of the famous 1968 Mem­phis garbage work­ers strike. Recall­ing a recent face-to-face meet­ing with Oba­ma, Turn­er said he told me per­son­al­ly he was work­ing hard for the lit­tle man. If he don’t sign, he’ll dis­ap­point me badly.”

Turn­er and oth­ers are press­ing for an exec­u­tive order that would estab­lish a liv­ing wage” for work­ers whose employ­ment is tied to fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tracts, grants, loans, or prop­er­ty leas­es. Ear­li­er this year, the labor-backed Good Jobs Nation” cam­paign pro­duced evi­dence that many fast food work­ers at gov­ern­ment-owned build­ings in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., are earn­ing below pover­ty-lev­el wages, and that the same prob­lems extend to oth­er work­ers whose jobs are tied to fed­er­al gov­ern­ment action. A study ear­li­er this year from the pro-labor group Demos esti­mat­ed an exec­u­tive order could raise the income of about two mil­lion low-wage work­ers nationwide.

Rep. Kei­th Elli­son (D‑Minn.) and oth­er mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus are mak­ing the order a cen­ter­piece of their pro-work­er Raise Up Amer­i­ca” cam­paign launched in late June. The Change to Win fed­er­a­tion — backed most notably by the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) and the Team­sters — is a part­ner in the Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus campaign.

Such an order would not require a vote in Con­gress or any coop­er­a­tion from the anti-labor Repub­li­cans, not­ed Mike Cas­ca, a spokesper­son for Elli­son. The pres­i­dent has sole dis­cre­tion on whether to issue such orders, and pres­sure is ris­ing on Oba­ma to do so from prgres­sive Democ­rats, labor unions, faith-based groups, and oth­ers, Cas­ca said. 

If Oba­ma fails to sign the exec­u­tive order, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is com­plic­it in the per­pet­u­a­tion of pover­ty,” charged Bill Lucy, a retired exec­u­tive of Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees (AFSCME) union, who joined Turn­er Wednes­day for a pub­lic pan­el dis­cus­sion of the issue. A sim­i­lar exec­u­tive order was signed by Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son in 1965, he added, so it’s not like it’s any­thing new.”

Radio talk-show host Joe Madi­son said marchers at the Aug. 24 events to hon­or the 50th anniver­sary of King’s speech will hear repeat­ed calls from the speak­ing plat­form for an exec­u­tive order. We will do a dis­ser­vice to those (orig­i­nal 1963) speak­ers — to Dr. King, to A. Philip Ran­dolph — if we do not demand” pres­i­den­tial action on an exec­u­tive order,” Madi­son said. With­out a demand for action it’s just a cer­e­mo­ny, and we don’t need any more cer­e­monies,” he said.

King was at the inter­sec­tion of the civ­il rights and labor move­ments,” com­ment­ed Moshe Mar­vit, a lawyer, author and labor activists. King would have under­stood that we need bold action from the pres­i­dent in the form of an exec­u­tive order” to begin rais­ing wages across broad sec­tors of the econ­o­my, Mar­vit said. 

Change to Win spokesper­son Paco Pabi­an told Work­ing In These Times that there has been no unequiv­o­cal response from the White House yet on calls for the liv­ing wage exec­u­tive order. There have been reports that Elli­son asked Oba­ma direct­ly for such an order at a June 6 meet­ing with mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus, and that Del. Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton (D‑D.C.) had made a sim­i­lar request, he said. In both cas­es, law­mak­ers were told that the mat­ter would be reviewed by White House staff and that a defin­i­tive answer would be forth­com­ing some­time soon, Fabi­an said.

The push for the exec­u­tive order gained an impor­tant backer on August 12, Fabi­an not­ed, when the New York Times pub­lished an edi­to­r­i­al endors­ing the idea.

Many laws and exec­u­tive actions from the 1930s to the 1960s, require fair pay for employ­ees of fed­er­al con­trac­tors. Buth over time, those pro­tec­tions have been erod­ed by spe­cial-inter­est exemp­tions, com­plex con­tract­ing process­es and lax enforce­ment. A new exec­u­tive order could ensure that the award­ing of con­tracts based on the qual­i­ty of jobs cre­at­ed, chal­leng­ing the notion that best con­tract is the one with the low­est labor costs,” the New York Times edi­tors wrote.

Full dis­clo­sure: AFSCME is a web spon­sor of In These Times.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue