Before President Obama addressed the first annual White House Summit on Working Families on Monday, hundreds of low-wage federally contracted workers dressed like Rosie the Riveter went on strike down the street to advocate for a better federal jobs policy.
The strike outside the National Zoo was organized by the Good Jobs Nation campaign, which has sponsored seven other strikes by federally contracted workers over the past year. The action highlighted the findings of a new report that says seven out of ten low-wage jobs sponsored by federal tax dollars are held by women, and that the president has the power to implement a federal “Good Jobs Policy” that would help lift more than 20 million workers out of poverty and into the middle class.
World War II’s Rosie the Riveters were federal contractors, organizers argued, and today’s low-wage service employees working in federal buildings are a new generation of Rosies. President Obama’s recent executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour was a good start, organizers and workers said, but it’s not enough to help working families.
Joanne Kenon, a 61-year-old grandmother who works at the National Zoo for $9.80 an hour, said she lives with her sister because she can’t afford to live on her own, and doesn’t think she will ever be able to afford to retire.
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“Don’t get me wrong, I love my job,” Kenon told Rewire. “But we need more money. We need benefits. We need respect.” A union that can regularly collectively bargain for better wages and benefits is the best way to accomplish those goals, she said: “We don’t need something that’s like every so often, a little bit every few years. We need something that’s on a regular basis.”
Kenon had never been on strike before, she said, but once an organizer told her about the strike she was immediately interested. She said other coworkers of hers at the National Zoo were interested but afraid to strike, and that she was the only one of her coworkers to join. “Of all the places we had to go on strike, it had to be at my job,” she said with a laugh. But she wasn’t worried for her job, and said that her boss seemed supportive of the action.
“I’m doing this for all of us,” Kenon said.
Although President Obama didn’t specifically address the need for collective bargaining in his speech at the Working Families Summit, he made a strong case for progressive family policies.
“Family leave, childcare, workplace flexibility, a decent wage—these are not frills, they are basic needs,” Obama said. “They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society.”
He announced that he would sign a presidential memorandum to expand federal employees’ access to flexible work schedules, and urged Congress to pass the languishing Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in order to fight pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
“Too often these issues are thought of as women’s issues, which I guess means you can kind of scoot them aside a little bit,” Obama said. “When women succeed, America succeeds.”