The president’s opportunity

I work at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Every day at work, I enter this federal building and walk by artifacts and exhibits that are part of our national history: the Emancipation Proclamation, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and even the Greensboro, NC, lunch counter from Woolworth’s, at which brave young men and women participated in sit-ins and forced the company to change its racial discrimination policies.

But what I’m most interested in is what is on exhibit behind the curtain – poverty wages, no benefits, and a path into the middle class that is closed for workers like me. I work at the Stars and Stripes Café, serving food and beverages and keeping the space clean for the visitors to the museum.

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But it’s a struggle. What most people don’t know is that I make $10,000 a year providing services on behalf of the federal government. Restaurant Associates, the company that employs me, has a federal contract with the Smithsonian Institution. They operate on federal property, but don’t pay employees like me enough to survive.

Like everyone else, I have dreams. I’m a single father, and my daughter and I share a room in a boarding house because that’s what we can afford. I work odd jobs in addition to the work at the Smithsonian to try to make ends meet. Like every father, I want the best for my daughter. Do you think I can provide that making poverty wages?

Like me, there are around two million workers all across the country working under federal contracts, but making less than $10 an hour. Many of us have joined the Good Jobs Nation campaign, asking the President to guarantee that companies doing business with the federal government pay their employees a living wage and treat them with respect.

We have gone on strike at Union Station, the Ronald Reagan Building, and at the Smithsonian museums – all federal buildings. And there are many more workers like us across the country. In fact, a recent report by the think tank Demos finds that the federal government, through contracts, leases and concessions, is the largest low-wage job creator in the country. These are folks who serve food in federal buildings, sew uniforms for our troops, and transport cargo at our nation’s ports.

The president mentioned in his speech that he wants to work with CEOs and other business leaders to guarantee that workers earn a living wage. The president has the opportunity to lead by example. Through executive action, he can ensure that companies doing business with the federal government pay their employees a living wage.

At a time when our country was being torn apart by racial tensions, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an executive order in 1965 banning discrimination by the government and government contractors against their work force.

Now, almost 50 years later, as economic inequality is threatening the promise of the American Dream – the very thing that makes this country great. President Obama can also take executive action and show leadership on this issue. For the sake of my neighbors and coworkers, and for our country, I hope Obama follows his inspiring remarks in Illinois with meaningful action.

Ross works at the Stars and Stripes Café in the Museum of American History and is a member of Good Jobs Nation, a new organization of low-wage workers employed by government contractors who are joining together for a living wage and a voice on the job.