As Pope Francis Arrives in DC, Federal Workers Strike Against Poverty Wages

Children of federal workers attend a morning rally in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday as those who 'cook and clean' for U.S. lawmakers express hope that Pope Francis will hear their call, and join their campaign, for better wages and the right to unionize. (Photo: Twitter/Change2Win)

As Pope Francis Arrives in DC, Federal Workers Strike Against Poverty Wages

Bernie Sanders joined those who "cook and clean" for nation's lawmakers as they demanded dignity—and a living wage—from those they serve

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was among those who joined federal workers in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday as they rallied to leverage the much-anticipated arrival of Pope Francis as a way to lift their ongoing campaign for better wages and treatment.

As Ned Resnikoff reports for Al-Jazeera:

Hundreds of striking low-wage workers in Washington, D.C. want Pope Francis to join their cause. Members of Good Jobs Nation, the labor-backed campaign to win higher pay and union recognition for service employees at federal sites in the capital, [halted] work on Tuesday morning as part of a labor protest timed to coincide with the pope's U.S. visit.

Roughly 1,000 workers from privately managed, federally owned workplaces, such as the Smithsonian museum food courts, [joined] religious leaders for a march to Capitol Hill. Most, but not all, of the workers will be on strike. Several religious leaders are planning to march alongside them, including Rev. Michael Livingston of Riverside Church of New York City, which has a long history of Christian civil rights activism.

The strike is part of a broader effort by U.S. labor unions to make common cause with Pope Francis. Labor leaders have praised Francis for his remarks on global wealth inequality and dignity of labor, and unions see an opportunity to cement their ties with one of the most powerful civic institutions in the world.

Sanders attended the rally and offerd his continued support to the workers' campaign.

"In my view, when we talk about morality and when we talk about justice we have to understand that there is no justice when so few have so much, while so many have so little," Sanders told the workers. "The time has come for President Obama and the U.S. Senate to end this injustice by requiring all contract workers to be paid at least $15 an hour with the right to form a union. The time has come to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour."

In a letter (pdf) addressed to Pope Francis, who arrives Tuesday for a five-day U.S. visit, the workers invited the head of the Catholic Church to meet with them so he could better understand the plight of workers who may "cook and clean at the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings," but remain trapped in "utter poverty" due to their low-wages and inability to form a union.

"We may be invisible to the wealthy and powerful we serve everyday--but we know we are worthy of a more abundant life as children of God," the letter stated. "That's why we are joining with other low-wage workers across America who are fighting to provide a decent life for ourselves and our families. As you prepare to meet with the Congress and President, we hope that you will also take a little time to meet with us and listen to our stories."

Charles Gladden, a 63-year-old worker who signed the letter and spoke with Resnikoff, explained the workers' call for a "$15 minimum wage and a union" is just a start and expressed optimism that if the Pope--who has voiced his compassion for the world's poor workers and contempt for income inequality--takes up their concerns with lawmakers and Obama, it could give the ongoing fight a needed breakthrough.

"For [Pope Francis] to speak and mention Good Jobs Nation and the Senate workers directly to Congress, that would be an even bigger plus," Gladden said. "Because we're all fighting for the same thing."

In an op-ed that appeared in the Guardian on Monday evening, James Powell, another federal worker involved in the effort, explained how difficult his life has become even though he is gainfully employed by the federal government at the U.S. Capitol:

I've worked as a Senate chef for 5 years, but I only make $13 dollars an hour. I'm a single father and it's hard to support my son on a poverty wage. The cost of living in Washington is so expensive that I recently ended up homeless. I lived in an abandoned house for nearly two months. That's how long it took me to save up enough money to rent a bedroom in an apartment. I often had to skip meals to save money.

Perhaps the lavish lifestyle of our politicians makes it hard for them to understand the challenges of the working poor. The senators I cook for select their dishes and wine pairings from a black leather bound menu, with the seal of the Senate embossed in gold on the cover. Senator Marco Rubio is a fan of the "Poached Salmon Nicoise Salad" with haricot verts, capers, egg, tomato, potato, and thyme vinaigrette ($19 dollars). Senator Lindsey Graham likes to order the "Stacked Cesar Salad" with grilled chicken, baby romaine lettuce and petit romaine hearts ($18 dollars). I'd have to work about two hours to any of these dishes, which I cooked myself.

When the pope comes to Congress, I hope he tells the senators that the workers who serve them are their equals in the eyes of God and that we should be able to afford food and shelter just as politicians are able to do.

Though not all lawmakers in Congress are Catholics, Powell acknowledged, many of them are and many others identify as Christians or people of faith.

Perhaps, he said, Pope Francis will take the opportunity to remind U.S. lawmakers of the "their moral obligation to help the 'least of these'" in society.

"The truth," Powell concluded, "is that the pope may be the only person who can broker a bipartisan solution to inequality at the US Capitol and help low-wage workers. That's why the pope may be our only hope."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.