With protests underway in dozens of cities, presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke to a crowd of low-wage workers outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, crediting them with raising the minimum wage in cities and states around the country.
“What you are doing and workers all over the United States are doing, you are having a profound impact,” Sanders said to cheers. “People are raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. And you know who started it? You did. You started the movement.”
“Now we’ve got to finish the job,” Sanders added. “Fifteen bucks and a union.”
The protest outside the Capitol was part of Fight for 15, the union-backed campaign in which service-sector workers are calling for a $15 minimum wage and union recognition. Many of the low-wage employees who showed up to hear Sanders speak work for federal contractors on government property, including the Capitol grounds, and are members of a union-backed group called Good Jobs Nation.
The group has been calling on members of Congress to raise the minimum wage for contract employees. President Barack Obama signed an executive order to bump the wage floor for such workers to $10.10 per hour, but many say that amount is still not enough to live on in the Washington area.
One worker, Warner Massey, 55, said he earns $13.50 per hour doing custodial work inside Senate buildings. “I’m no different than nobody else here. I need more money, too. That’s the bottom line,” Massey said. “I figure if I have a couple more dollars on my check, that will help ease the pain a little bit.”
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has been an outspoken supporter of the Fight for 15, which is funded by the Service Employees International Union. Sanders has introduced a bill in Congress that would set a federal minimum wage of $15, compared to the current level of $7.25. Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, has also voiced her support for the Fight for 15 campaign, though she’s backing a rival bill with a more modest hike to $12.
Sanders noted that many workers in the crowd serve members of Congress and their staffers each day.
“They should know that if you are serving them, they have got to start serving you,” he said. “Workers who work for the United States government deserve the right to raise their children in security. They deserve the right to earn enough to live in a decent apartment or a decent house. They deserve the right to bargain collectively.”
After the speech, dozens of protesters went inside the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where they hosted a sit-in protest in the basement cafeteria to call for a living wage.