Federal Workers Tie Push for Fair Wage to Pope's Visit

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Ahead of Pope Francis’s visit to Washington this week, several hundred federal contract workers walked out of work Tuesday morning to rally for a wage increase and the right to form a union.

The workers marched down a street near the U.S. Capitol before gathering in a church where a series of speakers championed their cause for a $15 minimum wage, benefits and the right for all federal contract workers to unionize. Many of those involved have rallied to highlight these issues before, but this week’s papal visit to Washington – Francis’ first stop on his first trip to the United States – provided a unique opportunity to get their message across.

On Thursday, Francis will become the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress. The workers wrote a letter asking him to meet with them during his visit and several called on him to speak about their plight in his historic address to lawmakers.

“It’s a wonderful feeling because as he’s speaking on it, the higher power speaking to Congress, it’s going to open up a lot of eyes and a lot of hearts that it’s real,” Sontia Bailey, a cashier at the Capitol building, said. “Poverty is real. It’s sad but it’s true.”

Among the speakers Tuesday was Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent running a grassroots campaign for president. The issue of a livable wage sits squarely with Sanders’ call to address income inequality and help the poor, a message that has been resonating as he gains ground on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“Today, as we welcome Pope Francis to the United States and the U.S. Capitol, I hope that every member of Congress and the president will heed his call for social and economic justice,” Sanders told the packed church to loud cheers and applause. He called on President Obama to sign an executive order changing the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15 an hour plus benefits. Obama signed an executive order last year raising the wage to $10.10 per hour, which many workers said was an improvement, but not enough.

“There is no justice when millions of people throughout our country, including people working in the United States Senate, are working for wages that are too little to take care of their kids, to take care of their family,” Sanders said. “That’s wrong. That has got to change. There is no justice in America when the largest low-wage employer is not McDonald’s, it is not Burger King, it is not Wal-Mart, it is the United States government.”

As he spoke, Sanders stood in front of a sign that read “Senators, Inequality is the root of evil” and next to a display bearing an image of the pope’s face above several of his quotes calling for income equality. The workers carried signs that read “Pope Francis: We feed Senators, we go hungry” and “Pope Francis: We serve Senators. Our kids are poor.” They wore blue long-sleeved shirts with “strike” in bold letters on the front and a number of them held signs bearing the pope’s photo. As they marched toward the church, they sang “Don’t Worry About a Thing” and “We Shall Overcome.”

After leaving the church, they walked two blocks to the front steps of the Capitol, where many of them work, for prayer and to continue their call for action.

Bailey was just one of hundreds of federal workers at the rally. During her speech, she said she works a second job, bringing her workweek to about 70 hours, which has been detrimental to her health. In July, her health issues caused her to have a miscarriage, she said. Her story made waves around the Capitol when she wrote about it in The Guardian in late July.

“Going into the Capitol we wear one uniform and go out wearing another uniform, just trying to make it to punch another clock,” Bailey said. “And with the pope coming, hopefully his message speaks to everyone. And they need to know and understand that working in the Capitol is not peaches and cream. We’re working for pennies, nickels and quarters and dimes.”

Another worker, Charles Gladden, told RealClearPolitics he has been working in the Senate for eight years in utilities and food service, but up until about three months ago he was homeless. He slept in Washington’s McPherson Square, just blocks from the White House, but still managed to go to work every day. His story was highlighted by CNN earlier this year.

“I lost three toes since I’ve been there because I’ve been on my feet so much and when they got infected, I couldn’t go to the doctor because I had to work to maintain, just to maintain – I’m trying to find the right words to give a description of the suffering and the struggle and the condition in which we was in, or I was in,” Gladden said.

These workers hope the pope’s visit will provide crucial visibility for their cause in light of the attention he has given to the plight of the poor.

“It would help a great deal,” Gladden said. “These are the most powerful people in the world. … We should be an embarrassment to them to be so powerful and have the riches country in the world and we’ve got homeless people working and still homeless and on the street.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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