‘Rosie the Riveters’ Storm National Zoo

Bruce Vail June 25, 2014

A new Demos report insists that executive action is the key to protecting workers' rights.

Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma is fac­ing a coor­di­nat­ed pres­sure cam­paign to take addi­tion­al steps to improve labor pro­tec­tions and basic ben­e­fits for work­ers employed indi­rect­ly by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The cam­paign — backed by the Change to Win labor fed­er­a­tion and the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus—is an exten­sion of an ear­li­er push that led up to Obama’s Feb. 12 exec­u­tive order rais­ing the min­i­mum wage to $10.10 an hour for the employ­ees of fed­er­al contractors.

A small group of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-area work­ers punc­tu­at­ed the cam­paign this week with demon­stra­tions at the Nation­al Zoo and sev­er­al oth­er sites. As in the pre­vi­ous demon­stra­tions over the past year, the work­ers called atten­tion to the low pay and mea­ger ben­e­fits offered at the fast food out­lets and clean­ing ser­vices that oper­ate at fed­er­al instal­la­tions nation­wide. The lat­est iter­a­tion of the cam­paign puts spe­cial empha­sis on how female work­ers suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly from such labor con­di­tions, with some Nation­al Zoo strik­ers adopt­ing Rosie the Riv­et­er” cos­tumes in an effort to link con­tem­po­rary employ­ment issues with patri­ot­ic themes from the past.

Work­er advo­cates backed up their argu­ment for pres­i­den­tial with a report released last week from the pro-labor think tank Demos, Under­writ­ing Good Jobs: How to Place Over 20 Mil­lion Amer­i­can on a Path­way to the Mid­dle Class Using Fed­er­al Pur­chas­ing Pow­er.” The report argues that Oba­ma can use pro-work­er, pro-union exec­u­tive orders to improve the lives of mil­lions with­out the debate need­ed to pass leg­is­la­tion. Among the sug­ges­tions were new require­ments that fed­er­al con­trac­tors pro­vide good qual­i­ty ben­e­fits to employ­ees (includ­ing paid sick leave and paid fam­i­ly leave); that the gov­ern­ment estab­lish high­er stan­dards for com­pli­ance with exist­ing work­place health and safe­ty reg­u­la­tions; that lim­its be placed on exec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion at com­pa­nies that rely on gov­ern­ment con­tracts; and that the fed­er­al con­trac­tor work­force become more broad­ly unionized.

The report is the third in a series from Demos on the theme of reform­ing fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tract­ing pro­ce­dures as a way to boost pay and ben­e­fits for low-wage work­ers. More­over, the report advo­cates pun­ish­ing bad employ­ers, says Demos spokesper­son Elek­tra Gray. This has been an impor­tant issue for us for a while,” she says, not­ing that a num­ber of pro­gres­sive and labor groups have been dis­ap­point­ed that the Oba­ma White House had aban­doned in 2010 its so-called High Road Con­tract­ing” ini­tia­tive that would have tack­led many of the same issues stud­ied in the Demos reports.

Rep. Kei­th Elli­son (D‑Minn.), co-chair­man of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, endorsed the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Demos report and said his group would push the White House to issue the need­ed exec­u­tive order, just as it had pushed for the exec­u­tive order on the $10.10 min­i­mum wage. The Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus is all on board,” with Demos and the Change to Win-spon­sored Good Jobs Nation cam­paign, Elli­son stat­ed dur­ing a Demos-spon­sored press call for news reporters on June 18.

As a mem­ber of Con­gress, I can tell you that we are not going to see any pro-work­er leg­is­la­tion passed this year,” Elli­son added. If the Con­gress won’t do it, the Pres­i­dent must” by using his author­i­ty to issue exec­u­tive orders,” the Con­gress­man said.

Elli­son also told reporters in a Demos-spon­sored con­fer­ence call June 18 that there had been no clear sig­nal from the White House on how Oba­ma is respond­ing to the calls for a new exec­u­tive order. The Pres­i­dent is well aware of what we are after,” but they haven’t shown us their cards. They have not giv­en us any defin­i­tive state­ment on where they stand,” he said. Elli­son added that such ret­i­cence is not unusu­al for White House aides, and that they had been sim­i­lar­ly non-com­mit­tal about the min­i­mum wage exec­u­tive order for months before final­ly decid­ing to go ahead and issue the order ear­ly this year.

Liz Wat­son, an offi­cer of the Nation­al Women’s Law Cen­ter, also endorsed the Demos report. With his agen­da blocked in Con­gress, it’s time for [Oba­ma] to lead by exam­ple,” she said dur­ing the June 18 press call. An exec­u­tive order would be espe­cial­ly impact­ful for women employed in the fed­er­al con­trac­tor work­force, she said, because of the high­er pro­por­tion of women at the low end of the wage scale. Fur­ther­more, she assert­ed, Unions shrink the wage gap for women [com­pared to men] by 50 percent.”

Robert Hilton­smith, co-author of the report along with Lew Daly, said that the new research by Demos takes a broad view of the fed­er­al pur­chas­ing foot­print” to esti­mate the ben­e­fits of a new exec­u­tive order. By includ­ing work­ers not includ­ed in reports from oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, Demos esti­mate that an Oba­ma order could raise wages and ben­e­fits for as many as 8 mil­lion indi­vid­u­als in the fed­er­al­ly sup­port­ed work­force.” By includ­ing the fam­i­ly mem­bers of the 8 mil­lion, the researchers reached the esti­mate of more than 20 mil­lion ben­e­fi­cia­ries claimed in the report’s sub­ti­tle, he said.

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.
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