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Wage hike executive order moves forward, but workers want more

Plans to raise the minimum wage for federally contracted workers to $10.10 are moving ahead. But protesting workers want a union as well.
Low wage workers join with supporters of an increase in the minimum wage during a protest outside the Air and Space Museum, Dec. 5, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Low wage workers join with supporters of an increase in the minimum wage during a protest outside the Air and Space Museum, Dec. 5, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

In Washington D.C., low-wage protesters aren't settling for half-measures.

The U.S. Department of Labor is moving forward with plans to raise the minimum wage at federally contracted companies, marking a historic victory for protesting low-wage workers. On Thursday, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez unveiled a proposed rule to lift the wage floor to $10.10 per hour, potentially hiking the pay of up to 200,000 employees of federal contractors. Yet the step forward has not satisfied the workers' organization Good Jobs Nation, which is now demanding the right to collectively bargain with their employers.

On the same day that Perez unveiled the draft rule, workers affiliated with Good Jobs Nation said they would continue their strikes and protests until President Obama signs an executive order requiring that federal contractors bargain with their employees.

“I’m grateful to the President for raising my wage to $10 an hour, but it’s not enough to care for my son,” says Rodelma Acosta, a McDonald’s worker at the Pentagon, in a statement from the group. “As a single mom, I still have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid because there’s nothing left after paying the rent. Most of my coworkers are like me – we’re single moms and barely making it. We need more than the minimum wage, we need a union to win the living wages and benefits necessary to take care of our families and give our kids a chance to succeed in the world.”

Good Jobs Nation unveiled itself to the world in May 2013, when it released a statement describing itself as "a new organization of low-wage workers joining together for a living wage and a voice on the job." In the months that followed, the group focused more on the "living wage" part of its core mission, staging a series of strikes and protests in which hundreds of federally contracted workers implored the president to raise their wages. President Obama acceded to that demand in his 2014 State of the Union address, when he announced that he would sign an executive order requiring all federal contractors to pay their employees at least $10.10. The draft rule which the Labor Department unveiled this Thursday was prompted by the president's executive order.

Having secured that victory, Good Jobs Nation has now pivoted to the "voice on the job" component of its mission. In an open letter [PDF] sent this week to President Obama and Secretary Perez, members of the group said they intend to form a union and want the president to "direct the federal agencies that contract with our employers ... to require their contractors to bargain with us over fair wages and working conditions in return for our commitment not to strike."

When asked on a Thursday conference call with reporters whether the Labor Department had discussed the demand, Secretary Perez said, "The issue of collective bargaining is not a part of this executive order and as a result it is not part of the proposed rule-making that we're announcing today." The White House press office did not return a request for comment.

The latest push from Good Jobs Nation settles at least one open question hanging over the recent wave of low-wage worker protests: What happens when wages go up slightly for those workers? Does the movement disband, or do workers and organizers keep pushing for union rights? Fast food workers have previously said they would continue their low-wage strikes even if wages rose across the industry, but federally contracted workers were the first group of protesters to actually be confronted with that dilemma.

Now that Good Jobs Nation has answered the dilemma by moving forward with more protests, the other big question is which union the group would choose to affiliate with. SEIU has been a major institutional backer for the group, but a Good Jobs Nation spokesperson speaking on background declined to say whether that union would end up representing the federally contracted workers.

"Workers will make that decision on their own, right now they are just focused on winning collective bargaining," said the spokesperson.