Analysis: How Obama paved the way on key labor issues

Ian Pajer-Rogers |


by Amy Traub

It’s not every day that low-paid workers — cleaners mopping the floors of Washington’s Union Station, vendors selling pretzels at the National Zoo, servers dishing out hot lunch at congressional cafeterias — speak out and win a voice in setting national policy. Yet three years ago, that’s exactly what began to happen.

In May 2013, workers employed by private companies under contract with the federal government came together to form Good Jobs Nation – and walked out on strike in the nation’s capital.

Hundreds of workers flooded the streets of D.C. that day and for 17 more strikes in the years since. They stood up on behalf of nearly 2 million more workers who — as my Demos colleague Robert Hiltonsmith and I found in our research — were paid $12 an hour or less to work on behalf of the American people, employed by private companies through contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements and property leases with the federal government. At the same time, many of these same companies provided their executives with exorbitant compensation on the taxpayer dime. Even as President Obama and a growing number of economic analysts were identifying the loss of stable, middle-class jobs as a top national concern, U.S. tax dollars were effectively fueling the low-wage economy and exacerbating inequality.

Of course, workers employed on federal contracts represent just a portion of the U.S. workforce that is underpaid and overworked, working without paid sick time or a voice on the job, and often laboring under hazardous conditions. But while Congress blocked efforts to raise the minimum wage and advance workplace fairness for all Americans, Obama used his executive power to improve standards for one group of workers he could affect directly: federal contract employees. Less than a year after contract workers first walked off the job on strike, the president announced in his State of the Union address that he would raise the minimum wage for contract employees to $10.10 an hour. More executive orders followed: Obama guaranteed paid sick time to contract workers, cracked down on federal contractors who flout federal wage and safety laws, extended contract workers’  protection from discrimination, and acted to advance equal pay in the contracting workforce.

The president’s executive actions are important because they directly improve the lives of Americans working for federal contractors and establish a model for Congress to follow in improving wages and employment conditions for all working Americans. And just as Obama’s executive orders for federal contract workers built on a long history of ensuring our tax dollars provide decent jobs with fair hiring, the next president will have the opportunity to build on Obama’s efforts.

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