YASEMIN AYARCI, CHAPTER PRESIDENT
Do you know who the main employer of low-wage workers is? You might think Walmart or McDonalds, but it’s actually the President of the United States. Through federal contracts, the national government employs nearly 2 million workers, many of which are paid wages too low to support themselves and their families. All eyes are on President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, where reports say he will announce an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour by 2016.
The support for this move has been mounting: the vast majority of Americans support the wage raise, as doing so would improve our economy and create jobs. However, the main pressure pushing Obama to sign this order has come from below. Right in his backyard, Pentagon workers took to the streets in a strike to demand higher wages on Wednesday, following the footsteps of workers at the Ronald Reagan Building, Union Station, and Smithsonian museums. Disgruntled with their working conditions and living standards, many of these workers are hoping that their pressure will finally force the President to raise federal labor standards.
Low wages aren't just felt by federally contracted workers, like those in the District; the American taxpayer has been the biggest demographic paying the price. The federal government currently subsidizes various different services from private corporations through federal contracts, and billions of taxpayer dollars go to companies that pay their workers poverty-level wages. The progressive think tank Demos found that these private corporations have transferred nearly $24 billion in federal funds into executive pay, all while their workers are struggling to make a living. Further, as federal contractors continue to ensure that their workforce is not generating enough income to provide for life's basic necessities, employees are forced into taxpayer-funded government aid programs, like food stamps and Medicaid. In effect, taxpayers are paying the price for a system that rewards corporate executives and leaves workers with no other choice than continued poverty.
“Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it,” pledged Obama in a speech last July. Although $10.10 is not enough to pull people from poverty wages, President Obama can indeed use his powers to boost millions of workers into better living conditions with a stroke of a pen.
But with the vast majority of both political parties bought by the same corporations and wealthy donors, federally contracted workers should not rely so much on the President and the Democratic establishment for their well-being. Obama has not been short on his critiques of income inequality before, all while stuffing his cabinet with corporatists figures who have contributed to the growing inequality gap. It’s the taxpayers who will pay for an increase in the federal minimum wage; the President has not called on reforms that hold corporatists funneling money out of our government accountable. This is a band-aid move by a corporate controlled administration that has time and time again failed to make Wall Street and the banks pay for their destruction.
While I support any advances in the conditions of the working class, this movement must not be co-opted by false hope and temporary solutions. As revolutionary activist Nelson Mandela said, "[Poverty] is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." Mandela knew that South Africa’s majority could never achieve liberation without radical restructuring of wealth and power. Indeed, a rearrangement that puts the needs of workers first is the only solution to income inequality in the United States. Our nation’s federally contracted workers must continue to build their own independent political movement that fully works to address their struggles and the struggles of all workers.
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