Criticism of low pay is usually directed at employers like McDonald’s or Walmart. On Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said the federal government is an even bigger culprit.
Sanders spoke at a church a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, addressing an audience that included striking federal contract workers who’d walked off their jobs on Tuesday morning to protest their poor pay. They timed their strike ahead of Pope Francis’ arrival in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday afternoon to highlight the pontiff’s support of fair wages and to call on U.S. lawmakers to put the Pope’s words into action.
“There is no justice in America when the largest low-wage employer is not McDonald’s, it is not Burger King, it is not Walmart. It is the United States government,” Sanders said, as he voiced support for a $15 minimum wage for federal contract workers. A 2013 report from the liberal research organization Demos estimated that the federal government funds nearly 2 million jobs that pay less than $12 per hour. Meanwhile, McDonalds’ total worker headcount at corporate-owned and franchise restaurants is about 750,000.
“There is no justice when millions of people throughout our country, including people working in the United States Senate, are working for wages that are too little to take care of their kids, to take care of their family. That’s wrong, that has got to change,” Sanders said.
Federal contract worker pay has been a rallying cry for the labor-backed campaign Good Jobs Nation, which helped organize Tuesday’s strike and past demonstrations. The organization has fought for higher pay for low-wage federal workers, including those employed at the U.S. Capitol, National Zoo, and Pentagon, whose pay is funded with taxpayer dollars. An executive order signed by President Barack Obama in February 2014 gave federal contract workers $10.10 per hour, but the group wants workers to earn at least $15 an hour and have the option to join a union.
Sanders’ remarks did not divert from his primary campaign message of leveling the economic playing field for all Americans. He focused on the plight of federal contract workers on Tuesday, but in the past he’s endorsed a $15 minimum wage for all workers nationwide. “When we talk about morality and when we talk about justice, we must understand there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little,” he said.