President Obama has been talking jobs lately — and at an event to spotlight working families, he praised his own executive order announced in January to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour.
“Nobody who cooks our troops’ meals or washes their dishes should have to live in poverty,” he said of workers in federal buildings, speaking Monday at the White House Summit on Working Families in D.C.. “That’s a disgrace.”
But less than half a mile away, about 150 of those same hourly employees took a different stance. They had walked off their jobs in federal buildings earlier that morning, gathering outside the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in a protest aimed directly at the president.
From the cashier at the Pentagon Dunkin’ Donuts to the custodian at Union Station, working women, mothers and grandmothers from about 50 companies that do business with the federal government marched to call for higher wages and the right to unionize.
Nearly all were outfitted in a uniform of sorts: a red bandana and denim button-up shirt, reminiscent of “Rosie the Riveter,” the propaganda campaign-turned-pop culture icon that came to represent female federal contract workers who took to American factories during World War II.
The women marched in the 80-plus-degree heat with chants of “Rosie needs a raise!”
“The struggle is that we do not make enough money to be able to survive,” said Joanne Kenon, a greeter at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “To live in D.C., it costs a lot.”
Kenon lives with her sister and brother-in-law, and she says she doesn’t think she can afford to retire. She’s also diabetic, and if not for the state assistance she receives for her medical bills, she said she’d be unable to afford care on her current wages.
“I am not asking for a handout,” she said. “The $10.10 executive order is a good step, but working women need a union and a seat at the table.”
Another of the “Rosies” at the protest, Erica Gayles, is a part-time cashier at the Dunkin’ Donuts at the Pentagon and a full-time student working toward her medical assistant degree.
Gayles is the youngest employee in her store, and the only one who attended the protest: Some of her co-workers were afraid to go on strike, she said.
“I told them they’re doing nothing wrong by asking for more money. There’s no crime in doing that,” she said. “[I’m] working toward my future, so I won’t have to be living like this — struggling — thinking about where my next dollar’s gonna come from.”
The strike was the latest organized by Good Jobs Nation, a group representing low-wage federal contract workers. The group points to data from the think-tank Demos, whose newest study found that women hold 71 percent of low-wage jobs supported by the federal government.
The White House had no comment on the strike, or on federal contract workers’ calls for Obama to sign a new jobs executive order that would direct federal agencies that contract with these companies to engage in collective bargaining. .
For Kenon, the protest took special significance — not just because it was her first strike, but because it occurred at her own workplace.
“I didn’t see anyone else that I work with here,” she said, gesturing to the National Zoo entrance, where fellow protesters gathered. “I’m liable to do this all by myself, for my people. But it’s worth it, though — I feel it’s worth it.”