By Bruce Vail
WASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of a march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, labor and civil rights activists are calling on President Barack Obama to honor King with an executive order that would raise wages for as many as two million workers.
One of the most poignant calls came Wednesday from Alvin Turner, a veteran of the famous 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike. Recalling a recent face-to-face meeting with Obama, Turner said “he told me personally he was working hard for the little man. If he don’t sign, he’ll disappoint me badly.”
Turner and others are pressing for an executive order that would establish a “living wage” for workers whose employment is tied to federal government contracts, grants, loans, or property leases. Earlier this year, the labor-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign produced evidence that many fast food workers at government-owned buildings in Washington, D.C., are earning below poverty-level wages, and that the same problems extend to other workers whose jobs are tied to federal government action. A study earlier this year from the pro-labor group Demos estimated an executive order could raise the income of about two million low-wage workers nationwide.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are making the order a centerpiece of their pro-worker “Raise Up America” campaign launched in late June. The Change to Win federation—backed most notably by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters—is a partner in the Progressive Caucus campaign.
Such an order would not require a vote in Congress or any cooperation from the anti-labor Republicans, noted Mike Casca, a spokesperson for Ellison. The president has sole discretion on whether to issue such orders, and pressure is rising on Obama to do so from prgressive Democrats, labor unions, faith-based groups, and others, Casca said.
If Obama fails to sign the executive order, “the federal government is complicit in the perpetuation of poverty,” charged Bill Lucy, a retired executive of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, who joined Turner Wednesday for a public panel discussion of the issue. A similar executive order was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, he added, so “it’s not like it’s anything new.”
Radio talk-show host Joe Madison said marchers at the Aug. 24 events to honor the 50th anniversary of King’s speech will hear repeated calls from the speaking platform for an executive order. “We will do a disservice to those (original 1963) speakers—to Dr. King, to A. Philip Randolph—if we do not demand” presidential action on an executive order,” Madison said. Without a demand for action “it’s just a ceremony, and we don’t need any more ceremonies,” he said.
“King was at the intersection of the civil rights and labor movements,” commented Moshe Marvit, a lawyer, author and labor activists. King would have understood that “we need bold action from the president in the form of an executive order” to begin raising wages across broad sectors of the economy, Marvit said.
Change to Win spokesperson Paco Pabian told Working In These Times that there has been no unequivocal response from the White House yet on calls for the living wage executive order. There have been reports that Ellison asked Obama directly for such an order at a June 6 meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had made a similar request, he said. In both cases, lawmakers were told that the matter would be reviewed by White House staff and that a definitive answer would be forthcoming sometime soon, Fabian said.
The push for the executive order gained an important backer on August 12, Fabian noted, when the New York Times published an editorial endorsing the idea.
“Many laws and executive actions from the 1930s to the 1960s, require fair pay for employees of federal contractors. But over time, those protections have been eroded by special-interest exemptions, complex contracting processes and lax enforcement. A new executive order could ensure that the awarding of contracts based on the quality of jobs created, challenging the notion that best contract is the one with the lowest labor costs,” the New York Times editors wrote.
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau. He writes frequently for Working In These Times, where this post first appeared.