Strikers invoke Pope Francis as they seek higher wages and a union

WASHINGTON — About 750 strikers were among a crowd estimated at 1,000 in urging the federal government to force contractors to pay them $15 an hour for the work they do.

The strikers, who have no union but want the opportunity to form one, planned to strike only one day, Sept. 22, the day Pope Francis was arriving in the United States from Cuba.

Their morning rally, organized by the Change to Win coalition of labor unions, was dubbed a “Procession & Prayer Action.”

Their rally, at the Capitol, came two days before Pope Francis’ scheduled address to a joint meeting of Congress.

“The pope has talked about economic inequality and the need to treat workers with dignity, and the dignity of work. That is clear,” said Paco Fabian, a spokesman for the Good Jobs Nation campaign of Change to Win. “The pope’s words touched their hearts.”

The workers sent a letter to the pope the week before their strike, asking for an audience. In the letter, they said, “We sleep on the streets because we cannot pay the rent. We go to bed hungry because we can’t put food on the table. We endure sickness because we cannot afford health care. We earn so little that we sacrifice our dignity to support our kids. We work such long hours that our unborn babies have died.”

When he addresses Congress, “the pope’s likely to talk about inequality. There’s no better example than what’s going on in the Senate,” Fabian said.

The average net worth of a senator is $2.3 million, Fabian said, compared to the $10.10 hourly wage all federal contractors are now supposed to pay their workers under the terms of an executive order issued by President Barack Obama. Some workers, according to Fabian, now make more than $10.10, but none makes at least $15 — and some still toil for hourly wages as low as $8.40 an hour.

Workers at the House cafeteria have a union contract and higher wages, Fabian said; Senate cafeteria workers have no union and work for less pay.

Obama also has signed an executive order designed to prevent law-breaking companies from getting federal contracts, and a separate order mandating paid sick days for the employees of federal contractors.

“Some workers are lagging behind still,” Fabian told Catholic News Service the day before the strike. “The workers who are serving them (senators) are homeless or on food stamps, or one or two paychecks away from losing it all.”

Strikers taking part in the rally work at the Capitol Visitor Center, the Pentagon, the Smithsonian, Air and Space Museum, the National Zoo, the Union Station train depot and the Ronald Reagan Building, where Fabian said 12 different federal contractors employ workers.

He added the Sept. 22 strike was the 14th such strike by federal contract workers in the past two years.