WASHINGTON (PAI) - By a 196-211 margin, the GOP majority in the U.S. House rejected a Democratic attempt to aid low-wage workers by ending federal government hiring of contractors who violate the law. All 186 voting House Democrats and 10 Republicans favored the move, which would have barred federal contracts to firms that violate minimum-wage and overtime-pay laws. All the opponents were Republicans.
Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus, tried to insert the ban on contracts to firms that steal wages from their workers. All three moves came during debate on the money bill funding the State, Justice and Commerce Departments for the year starting Oct. 1. They lost when the majority questioned what their amendment actually said. Ellison said the firms owe the workers at least $4 million.
Ellison and Grijalva were going to bat for low-wage workers who toil in restaurants in food courts in federal buildings, such as the Reagan Center in downtown Washington, at Union Station, at the Smithsonian Institution, and on various military bases nationwide.
For more than a year, those underpaid - and sometimes unpaid - fast-food workers whose firms had contracts at the facilities, have staged periodic one-hour walkouts demanding a living wage, longer hours and the right to organize without employer interference.
Their leaders, from the group Good Jobs Nation, recently met top Obama wage and hour enforcement officials to press their case against the fast-food firms. In a prior response, Obama issued an executive order saying any fast-food firm signing a new contract with the feds must pay the workers at least $10.10 an hour. His order doesn't help workers right now.
Ellison and Grijalva tried to put the purchasing power of the federal government behind the cause of raising the workers' wages. They didn't succeed. "The federal government could lead the way by disqualifying contractors who practice wage theft, but House Republicans voted tonight against an amendment to do exactly that," they said afterwards.
"No hardworking American should ever have to worry about whether her employer will refuse to pay her when she works overtime or take money out of her paycheck, especially if she works for a federal contractor," Ellison told his colleagues.
"Right now, federal contractors who violate the Fair Labor Standards Act are still allowed to apply for contracts," he continuing, saying the amendment denies contracts "to those who violate the Fair Labor Standards Act to deny workers the pay they earned.
"We may not agree on the minimum wage or we may not agree on a lot of other things," Ellison told the Republicans. "But Americans on both sides of the aisle believe that a penny earned is a penny that must be paid. Any time a contractor is found to have violated a worker's right and is found to have been guilty of that, according to the law, that contractor should not benefit from the money in this particular bill."
Photo: Keith Ellision. AP