D.C. fast food workers strike, wage complaints reach White House

WASHINGTON – Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., has taken the plight of the nation’s low-paid fast food workers – specifically those who toil in eateries in federal buildings – straight to the top of the nation’s political pyramid – President Obama himself.

The congressman raised the issue of the workers, employed in fast-food-festooned food courts in facilities such as D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Building and the Smithsonian Institution, in a meeting last week of the Congressional Black Caucus with the president, he said, on July 18.

“He heard it. It went from my mouth into his ear,” the congressman added.

Most of the exploited fast food workers are African American or Latino. And the federal government “hides behind the contractors’ skirts” in letting the food court proprietors and fast food shop owners get away with paying minimum wages, Ellison told Obama. He challenged the president to do something about it.

Obama’s response? “He told me he’d take it under advisement,” Ellison later told Press Associates Union News Service.

Ellison mentioned the meeting, but not Obama’s response, to the third group of exploited D.C. fast food workers, who staged a one-day walkout and rally on July 18. The workers left their eateries at the food court in Union Station, the city’s busy rail terminal-shopping complex. Union-supported Good Jobs Nation has helped organize the 1-day retail and fast food worker walkouts in D.C., New York, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago.

Chanting “What do we want? A living wage! If we don’t get it, shut it down!” the 100-plus African American and Latino workers said they are a few of hundreds of thousands of workers, employed at federal facilities, who earn the minimum wage.

Private firms with federal contracts to run fast food malls, clean buildings, drive trucks on federal lands, make military uniforms and provide other similar tasks employ the companies/subcontractors which in turn low-pay the workers, a new report from the National Employment Law Project says.

“The federal government is a bigger employer of low-wage workers than Walmart and McDonald’s, combined,” Ellison told the crowd.

Defying 100-degree heat and 90 percent humidity, one 55-year-old fast food worker at the D.C. rally told the crowd he holds down a second job besides his fast food job, and even then can’t make ends meet. He wonders how, or if, he’ll be able to retire.

But Ellison said the problems fast food workers face go beyond just low pay. He said fast food workers in Milwaukee told him their employers now “are putting their pay on debit cards,” not in paychecks. “Every time they swipe the card to buy Pampers or food, they get charged a fee for doing that,” he added. Fast food workers in another state, faced with the same debit card fees, are suing their employer, McDonald’s.

The Union Station workers, like their counterparts at the Smithsonian and the Reagan Building, want Obama to issue an executive order mandating that the contractors who run the food courts order their fast-food tenants to pay a living wage.

Good Jobs Nation has also filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Labor Department against the fast-food firms and the contractors, saying the Reagan Building eateries short workers on wages and overtime pay. The department is investigating.

Lawmakers who addressed the workers proposed other solutions to their plight.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Obama should change contracting orders so that the contractors who bid to run the fast food courts would get their bids judged on, among other factors, how high the fast food workers’ pay would be.

Ellison and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., offered yet another solution: Organize.

“If you had a union, you’d be able to organize and negotiate with these guys,” Ellison told the workers. “But right now, they (employers) interfere with that. I believe that’s unconstitutional.”

“Collective bargaining is a civil right,” added Schakowsky, expressing a hope, not the actuality. “All of us ought to have the right to a living wage,” said the Chicago congresswoman. She must cope with another low-wage monster – Walmart – opening stores in or near her district. “We need to have the federal government set the example for all the Walmarts of the world,” she ended.

Photo: Via Good Jobs Nation FB page.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.