WASHINGTON -- A group of progressive members of Congress introduced a $15 an hour national minimum wage bill on Wednesday as hundreds of federal contract workers went on strike to protest their job conditions.
Introduced in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and in the House by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the bill would go far beyond the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and make it easier for federal workers to join a union. The proposed legislation follows another bill introduced by congressional Democrats in April that would raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour. Republicans have so far resisted raising the minimum wage.
President Barack Obama issued an executive order last year raising the wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour. But Sontia Bailey, a federally-contracted cashier at the U.S. Capitol, said she "struggled to survive" on $10.59 an hour. She was forced to take on a second job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and works 70 hours a week.
"KFC actually pays me more than Uncle Sam," she said at a rally in support of the $15 minimum wage bill outside the Capitol. "I'm here because America needs to know that long hours and low pay hurt working women and families."
Her hours had taken a toll on her health, Bailey said, explaining that she had a miscarriage three weeks ago.
"The truth is, I couldn't afford to weep. I had to get back to work, so I could have a proper and decent funeral for my baby last Saturday," she said. "A living wage and a union is the only way working women can get ahead, and stay ahead."
Bailey's comments were echoed by Charles Gladden, a Senate contract worker who makes $11.33 an hour. Gladden was homeless, sleeping outside a Metro station a few blocks from the White House, until a crowdfunding campaign raised enough for him to live in an apartment.
"Workers shouldn't have to rely on charity in order to survive," he said. "We need justice. Even though I now have a roof over my head, I'm still worried about holding on to it. ... The truth is that all the workers out here are just like me, we all are just one step away from being homeless, we are all one meal away from being hungry."
Other Senate janitors and food service workers, as well as workers from the Capitol Visitor Center, the Pentagon, Union Station, the National Zoo and the Smithsonian Institution, joined Gladden and Bailey in protest. Good Jobs Nation, an advocacy group backed by the Change to Win labor coalition, organized the strike.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sanders and other senators sent a letter to Obama in response to Gladden's story, calling on the president to issue a "model employer" executive order that would give contracting preference to firms that pay a living wage, offer health care and sick leave, and guarantee union rights for workers.
Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said on Wednesday that he was introducing the $15 minimum wage bill because "workers are entitled to dignity," and noted that the U.S. government is the nation's "largest low-wage employer."
"I think if you work 40 hours a week, you have a right not to live in poverty," he continued. "The current federal minimum wage is a starvation wage. It's got to be raised to a living wage."
The federal minimum wage, which has not been raised since 2009, would be more than $26 an hour today if the wage had kept pace with productivity and inflation since 1968. In a press release, Sanders' office said increasing the minimum wage would benefit 62 million workers who currently make less than $15 an hour, including over half of African-American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers.
Sanders noted that Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco have already passed ordinances raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour, and argued that the federal government should do the same.
Momentum for a higher federal minimum has continued to build as New York’s Wage Board is expected to approve a new $15 minimum wage for the state’s 200,000 fast food workers on Wednesday. A majority of states have a minimum wage higher than the one mandated by Congress.
Capitol contract workers had previously gone on strike in April, after workers in more than 230 cities walked off the job as a part of the union-backed Fight for $15 movement, calling on corporations to raise their wages.
Pamela Cadlett, a cashier in the Senate cafeteria, and Dewana Samuel, a Senate custodian, told The Huffington Post that they both made around $11 an hour. Cadlett, who has worked at the Senate for 13 years, saw her annual wage cut by more than half when Democrats led the push to privatize Senate dining services in 2008, using contractors to save money.
"I'm really struggling, I'm about to lose my home," Samuel added. "That's just really pitiful. I come to work every day ... I need food stamps, I need public assistance, it's just sad. I am grateful for the job, but I need more than the job."
The federal minimum wage has emerged as a fault line among the candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. While Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley both support a $15 an hour minimum wage, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hasn't yet backed that specific proposal.
Clinton has said she supports a $15 an hour wage in large metropolitan areas, and has spoken in support of the Fight for 15 movement, but says she doesn't think such a proposal should necessarily be implemented nationwide.