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Obama signs another order enforcing contractor work standards

"All major social movements in our country have started with the president using his executive powers," said labor leader Joe Geevarghese.
President Barack Obama speaks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2014.

For the third time in six months, President Barack Obama has unilaterally tightened standards for businesses that have contracts with the federal government. The executive order he signed on Thursday is intended to force labor law compliance among federally contracted businesses, as well as companies seeking federal contracts.

"Our tax dollars shouldn't go to companies that violate workplace laws," said Obama shortly before he signed the order. "It shouldn't go to companies that violate workers rights."

The order includes a provision requiring companies to disclose recent labor law infractions when they apply for federal contracts, and mandates that each federal agency appoint a labor compliance officer to single out which contractors are repeat offenders. Obama added his signature to the order just two days after employees of federal contractors went on a daylong strike in Washington, D.C., to protest of what they claim are low wages and poor working conditions. The workers, who are affiliated with the labor-backed organization Good Jobs Nation, had called on the president to sign a "Good Jobs Executive Order," which would boost labor law compliance among federal contractors, encourage collective bargaining, and raise wages, among other provisions.

Today's strike was the ninth Good Jobs Nation-led work stoppage in the past year and a half. Following the first series of strikes, Obama signed his first major executive order regarding federal contractor workplace conditions, mandating that businesses with federal contracts pay their employees a minimum of $10.10 per hour. Months later, he issued another order banning LGBT discrimination at companies with federal contracts.

"All major social movements in our country have started with the president using his executive powers."'

The signing of these three executive orders has made Good Jobs Nation one of the more successful 21st century labor organizations in influencing policy on the federal level. Union-friendly policies in Congress have mostly stagnated over the past few years, particularly in the face of a Republican House majority. By focusing all of its energies on the executive branch, the group has managed to win a series of policy changes within a matter of months. In part, that seems to be because Good Jobs Nation is asking the president to do something he was already planning on doing: Implementing parts of his agenda through executive order, so he doesn't have to deal with a gridlocked Congress.

The Obama administration first signaled that it intended to adopt that strategy in December 2013, when it hired former Clinton aide and Center for American Progress founder John Podesta as an adviser. Podesta's main policy brief at the White House is climate change, but more broadly he has worked on proposals to accomplish policy changes through unilateral executive action. The president has embraced that approach when it comes to U.S. climate change policy, as he has some unilateral authority over agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet when it comes to his ability to act without the legislative branch, the president has even more power to set the terms of federal contracts. As a result, boosting working standards for federally contracted workers has become the easiest way for Obama to enact a progressive economic agenda for at least a portion of the workforce.

The president said as much in his public remarks regarding the executive order. Even as he expressed frustration with Congress, he insisted that "it shouldn't stop us from doing what we can."

He added, "I'm ready to work with them any time that they want to pursue policies that help working families. But where they’re doing so little or nothing at all to help working families, then we've got to find ways, as an administration, to take action that's going to help."

Good Jobs Nation is a project of the labor coalition Change to Win (CtW), and there's a broader strategy behind the group's focus on federal contractors. Representatives from the group said they hope the president's executive orders will have a ripple effect through the broader economy.

"All major social movements in our country have started with the president using his executive powers," said CtW deputy director Joe Geevarghese. "Workers marched, FDR responded; workers went on strike, FDR responded. ... Ultimately, it takes Congress a little bit of time to catch up with where the people are."

In the meantime, Good Jobs Nation is exercising its power where it has leverage. Geevarghese said the $10.10 executive order which the president signed in February had already nudged some companies without major federal contracts to change on their own. The clothing retailer Gap's recent decision to raise its base wage from $9 to $10 per hour was in response to the executive order, he argued. He predicted a similar, albeit more subtle, response to the president's most recent order.

"Today's executive order sends a signal to private corporations that if they want to do business with the U.S. government, they've got to follow the law," he said. "And the signal effect is also, I think, a deterrent effect. Companies know they're on notice."