Labor Leader Calls on President Obama to Issue Executive Order That Honors Dr. King’s Legacy by Helping Low Wage Federal Contract Workers

Statement of Rev. Terry Melvin

President, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists

Among the many fine remarks given by speakers at last Saturday’s 50th Anniversary March on Washington, one in particular, we hope, might have caught President Obama’s ear. In her brief tribute to the protesters and march organizers 50 years ago, Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and first vice president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, linked their demand for civil rights and economic justice in 1963 to the plight of two million low wage workers who today are being brazenly exploited by private companies that make billions of dollars in contracts, concessions and property leases from the federal government.

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists joins advocacy groups that are calling on President Obama to sign an executive order that would ensure federal contractors pay a living wage and benefits to workers whose paychecks cannot even cover basic needs such as food clothing and even rent.

It is appalling that the tax dollars of American citizens are fueling the low-wage economy, while federal contractors haul away billions of dollars in profits every year. It is shameful and shocking that our own federal government has become the largest single creator of poverty wage jobs – more than Walmart and McDonalds combined. In a recent survey of low wage workers of federal contractors, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that:

  • 74% earn less than $10 an hour
  • Only 26% received sick days
  • Only 11% received employer-provided health care insurance
  • 58% reported no benefits at all
  • One in five depends on Medicaid for health care
  • 14% depend on food stamps.

These are workers who clean and safeguard government buildings like the Smithsonian Institution and the Reagan Building in the nation’s capital; they greet visitors at our national parks and museums, and even sew military uniforms for our troops. They are in the ranks of the working poor, folks who struggle to make ends meet every day, folks who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have embraced in his challenge to the nation’s conscience to “do the right thing.”

President Obama has spoken eloquently and compassionately about economic inequality. What better time than this 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s epic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and what better way to honor his legacy than for President Obama to issue an executive order that strikes a blow for fairness and decency for these workers in federally-funded contract jobs.

He has the power to do that. He doesn’t need to take a poll. He doesn’t need to appease the obstructionist Republicans in Congress. With the stroke of his pen, President Obama can elevate this moment of rich symbolism to a meaningful down payment on Dr. King’s dream. We urge him to seize the moment.