WASHINGTON -- "Whose Capitol? Our Capitol!" The chant reverberated on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday as low-income federal workers and religious leaders gathered to kneel in prayer for higher wages and the right to unionize.
Around 1,000 low-wage contract workers from federal buildings went on strike for the day to protest their pay and working conditions. Hundreds attended the demonstration, which took place in honor of Pope Francis' impending arrival in Washington, D.C.
The pope has made the plight of the low-wage worker central to his papacy and has dubbed economic inequality the “root of social evil.”
The refrain “15 and a union” echoed in the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, as workers and religious leaders filled the pews before crossing the street to pray on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Reverends, an imam, a rabbi and employees praised the pope for his message, and asked God to take mercy on the low-income worker. All the while, workers held up portraits of haloed populist advocates such as Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also addressed the crowd. Sanders, who has made income inequality a main issue in his campaign for the presidency, called on Obama to sign an executive order granting federal workers a salary of $15 an hour, proper benefits and the right to form a union.
"There is no justice in America when the largest low-'wage employer is not McDonalds, it is not Burger King, it is not Walmart, it is the United States government," Sanders said to a cheering crowd.
Sonita Bailey, who works as a cashier at the U.S. Capitol for one of her jobs, teared up as she spoke to the crowd.
"I work 70 hours a week, which took a toll on my health and back," she said. "I recently suffered a miscarriage. July 6th."
After the ceremony in the church, faith leaders accompanied the striking workers in a religious procession to the Capitol and conducted “prayer action.” The crowd kneeled together as Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Presbyterian Church's Office of Public Witness, quoted Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, "Laudato si."
"Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth," he said.
A 2013 study by public policy organization Demos found that the U.S. government is America’s leading low-wage job creator. According to that study, the government funds over 2 million low-wage jobs through contracts, loans and grants with private corporations. Good Jobs Nation!, the organization behind Tuesday's strike, has reported that the U.S. government keeps more workers in poverty than McDonald's and Wal-Mart combined.
"The $10.50 that we make an hour is not enough," Sylvia Heel, who has been a cashier at the Smithsonian National Zoo's cafeteria for three years, told The Huffington Post. "You have to depend on the public places like D.C. Energy and Salvation Army to assist you with paying the bills."
Heel works for Sodexo, a multibillion-dollar hospitality company that the government contracts for some of its food services. When she approached her employers about a raise, they said there was no money in the budget.
In addition to difficult working conditions, some workers cited frustrations with the everyday experience of facing other federal employees who are paid a living wage. Strikers' signs read: "We feed senators. We go hungry!"
"The senators I cook for select their dishes and wine pairings from a black leather bound menu, with the seal of the Senate embossed in gold on the cover," James Powell, a single father who makes $13 an hour as a chef in the Senate, wrote in the Guardian earlier this week.
The pope's visit to Washington, which includes an address to Congress on Thursday, has other activists hopeful as well. In addition to workers demanding a higher wage, climate change activists are also hoping the pope will inspire lawmakers to take action.
"The pope just brings a whole newness of life to this kind of faith-based activism," said Ken Brooker Langston, a minister with the Christian Church Disciples of Christ.
Though Langston is Protestant, he greatly admires the pope.
"We quote him quite a bit," he said, chuckling.
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