Low-Wage Workers in D.C. Turn Pledge of Allegiance Into Protest Chant

David Moberg

Striking concession workers from Washington, D.C.'s Union Station rally outside the Dept. of Transportation, which owns the historic railroad station. (Photo from Good Jobs Nation)

Courtney Shackleford, a 20-year-old college student working at a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop in the District of Columbia’s Union Station, walked off the job this morning along with roughly 70 other concession workers at the grand old railroad station.

I’m striking for a living wage,” she says. The minimum wage is not enough to live on.” She believes the shop, situated in one of the nation’s most lucrative retail spaces, should pay around $11 to $13 an hour, not the $8.25 an hour she earns now. Her unpredictable schedule, which rarely adds up to even 25 hours a week, compounds her money problems. She lives at home with her parents because she can’t afford to move out, and her student loan debt is still piling up — it already totals $15,000 after two years of school.

The strike today is the fourth in a string of work stoppages that began in May. Workers employed by private contractors at D.C.’s federally owned facilities, such as the Old Post Office, the Ronald Reagan Building and the Smithsonian museums, are fed up with low wages and lack of a voice on the job. Although the lowest level in the federal government’s pay scale is roughly what Shackleford earns, the pay rates rise rapidly with time and training.

The campaign is organized by Good Jobs Nation—a coalition that includes labor federation Change to Win, Jobs with Justice, local clergy and Interfaith Worker Justice. So far, the strikes have involved only a minority of workers at each site, but turnout of Union Station workers today was about 40 percent higher than on May 22, during a multi-site walk-out.

Today’s strikers staged a street theater action inside the building. They hoisted a fake American flag with corporate logos in place of stars and recited a fake pledge to corporate profits. Then they raised the real flag and delivered the real pledge of allegiance, including its promise of liberty and justice for all,” before security guards evicted them.

Beyond sending a message to their employers, these strikes deliver a not-so-indirect message to President Barack Obama, asking him to take executive action — which he can do easily — to set higher standards for workers at all federal contractors.

As the National Employment Law Project writes in a new report released today, Taking the Low Road [PDF], for decades the government has taken the position that federal contractors should follow a high road” of fair pay and treatment that yields better productivity and quality, a stronger economy and a model for private-sector employer behavior. Congress passed the Davis-Bacon Act and Public Contracts Act in the 1930s and the Service Contract Act in the 1960s to set a floor beneath federal contract work, ensuring that the government does not contribute to a downward wage spiral.

Yet, as the NELP study reports, many of the roughly 2 million federal contract workers — whose jobs range from manufacturing military uniforms to serving fast food to driving port trucks — have been excluded from coverage. Roughly a fifth of these workers live in poverty; two-fifths earn less than a living wage. And employers with a track record of violating labor laws easily obtain contacts and renewals.

As federal contracting has increased — now accounting for more than a half trillion dollars a year and more than two-fifths of all federal employees — enforcement of standards appears to have lagged. As contracts go to the lowest bidder, who often offers the lowest wages, more and more of these employees rely heavily on government programs from Medicaid to food stamps to survive.

Despite promises in 2010 to reform federal contracting, Obama has done little or nothing. In March 2011, a year after the president’s pledge to revamp the system, his nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget said that the administration was no longer considering plans to provide incentives for high road’ contractors,” according to the NELP report.

NELP argues that the federal government can learn — and adopt models — from state and local government policies that have worked well, such as:

  • Living wage standards;
  • Higher standards for service and concession workers in facilities linked to the government or where government is a major tenant;
  • Labor peace and retention policies, which protect jobs of workers even if the contractor changes, and may give an advantage to unionized companies;
  • Sweat-free procurement policies, which prohibit buying from suppliers who use sweatshop labor;
  • Earned sick days;
  • Stricter screening of would-be contractors for violation of labor, environmental, consumer protection and other laws.

In addition to pay, Good Jobs Nation stresses that the federal government must ensure workers’ freedom to join a union without harassment. But Shackleford said she felt the workers already had a union, since they were acting together to press their proposals for change, even if they did not enjoy official recognition and have not been able to change conditions at work.

To get the pay she needs and a more established, recognized union, first Courtney Shackleford will need a president who is on her side — and willing to act.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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