Obama could raise minimum wage for federal contract workers today (if he wanted to)

I’m unimpressed with Obama’s latest “I’m an economic populist too” speech. Like he did with his climate speech, he rang all the right opening bells (my emphasis):

But we know that people’s frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles.  Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles — to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement.  It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them.  And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were.  They may not follow the constant back-and-forth in Washington or all the policy details, but they experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today.  And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.

I believe this is the defining challenge of our time:  Making sure our economy works for every working American.

But his solutions scare me to death, because, well, they’re not solutions, they’re exacerbations to the problem. Like this one — lower taxes for corporations:

And that means simplifying our corporate tax code in a way that closes wasteful loopholes and ends incentives to ship jobs overseas. (Applause.) We can — by broadening the base, we can actually lower rates to encourage more companies to hire here and use some of the money we save to create good jobs rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our airports and all the infrastructure our businesses need.

Or more NAFTA-style “trade” agreements (read, TPP):

It means a trade agenda that grows exports and works for the middle class.

Fewer regulations that stifle our job-creating betters:

It means streamlining regulations that are outdated or unnecessary or too costly.

And he’s still on about deficits as the root of our evil:

And it means coming together around a responsible budget, one that grows our economy faster right now and shrinks our long-term deficits …

We can stop right there, though there’s more where this comes from. He still wants what Robert Rubin wants, and the Rubins of the world don’t want higher minimum wages. Obama just front-loaded his speech with Elizabeth Warren–talk to get there. Nice. Legacy nice.

How does this apply to minimum wages?

We wrote recently about the growing push for higher wages in the country, starting with the minimum wage and fast-food workers. Mr. President, you can’t reverse a “dangerous and growing inequality” if you don’t pay people more money.

And by you, I mean you, Mr. President. The federal government employs millions of workers indirectly, through federal contracts. Yes, Mr. President; millions. You could personally change their wages today according to House Dem. Raúl Grijalva.

Josh Eidelson in Salon:

How Obama can bypass Tea Party Congress (and raise fast food worker wages)

Rep. Raul Grijalva tells Salon that House Democrats are asking “why the hell he just doesn’t do it!”

The White House has offered “no response” to a months-old call from congressional Democrats to bypass Congress and use executive action to raise workers’ wages, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus told Salon Tuesday afternoon. …

A man who said "Yes We Can"

A man who said “Yes We Can”

Grijalva and 49 House Democrats wrote to Obama in September to urge he use executive authority to require better labor standards for workers employed through federal government contracts with private companies. That letter followed a prior July letter by Grijalva and others, and a handful of one-day strikes since May by cleaning and concessions workers in D.C. federal buildings. A report by the progressive think tank Demos estimated that about 2 million workers with taxpayer-funded jobs make $12 an hour or less.

As I’ve reported, striking workers have also alleged violations of federal law, spurring a Department of Labor investigation and securing a meeting with the administrator of the General Services Administration. The work stoppages were part of an effort backed by the Service Employees International Union, which is also the key national player behind the wave of one-day fast food strikes, which organizers have promised will escalate to involve 100 cities Thursday.

How does this improve the wages of fast-food workers? Like this:

Along with lifting subcontracted workers out of poverty, Grijalva argued a move to raise their standards “would add huge momentum to the effort” by other low-wage workers in industries like fast food to win improvements. “It proves it can be done,” he told Salon, “and it puts the United States government and President Obama at the top of the moral imperative and the economic imperative to do this.”

Real moral leadership would put huge pressure on the low-end (predatory) wage market. Why predatory? Read here, about how your taxes make up the difference when Walmart and McDonalds employees can’t make ends meet.

What’s a president with executive authority to do?

We know Mr. Obama thinks that economic inequality is the “defining challenge of our time” because he said so. But does he himself feel challenged by it? Does Mr. Obama want to be at “the top of the moral imperative and the economic imperative” (quoting Mr. Grijalva)?

More simply, does the president want to put his feet where his mouth just walked, by acting on his words? You could ask him. White House operators are standing by:

Call the President

Comments: 202-456-1111
Switchboard: 202-456-1414

The question: “Will you raise wages of federal contract workers by executive order?” If you get an answer, please post it in the comments.

Kudos to Rep. Grijalva, and to Josh Eidelson for covering this story. Mr. President, we can’t fund your library like your other good friends, but many of us believed your other words, and we’re watching too.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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