Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man

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A construction worker silhouetted against the morning sky builds a planned shopping center in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A construction worker silhouetted against the morning sky builds a planned shopping center in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

And you thought the government didn’t have a jobs program. It does. The problem is that the pay and benefits are lousy, and in many cases the working conditions ain’t so great either.

We’re not talking about the civil service. No, as one of two recent reports notes, “Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements and property leases go to private companies that pay low wages, provide few benefits, and offer employees little opportunity to work their way into the middle class. At the same time, many of these companies are providing their executives with exorbitant compensation.”

That’s from “Underwriting Bad Jobs,” an analysis written by Amy Traub and Robert Hiltonsmith at the public policy and advocacy group Demos. “Our tax dollars are fueling the low-wage economy and exacerbating inequality,” they note, whether it’s food vendors peddling hot dogs at the National Zoo in Washington, security guards at federal buildings or men and women sewing military uniforms in Kentucky. Those impacted include healthcare, daycare and construction workers, armored car drivers, janitors and cleaners, prison guards at privately run jails and gift shop cashiers at national parks, museums and monuments.

The Demos findings are echoed in a second report – “Taking the Low Road: How the Federal Government Promotes Poverty-Wage Jobs through Its Contracting Practices” — issued just last week by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a non-partisan nonprofit that focuses on issues affecting low wage and unemployed workers.

NELP reports that every year the federal government awards private companies half a trillion dollars for contracts for goods and services:

Privatization advocates tell the public that outsourcing government jobs to the private sector is good business and an efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Policymakers argue that when private firms compete for public contracts, market forces will prevail, and the government will get the goods and services it needs at the best possible prices.

But in fact, this “free market” system leads to a bookkeeping sleight-of-hand: Low-road contractors pay poverty level wages and provide no benefits for their employees, who then rely on food, housing, healthcare, and childcare subsidies from government agencies. Thus, the real costs of goods and services purchased under federal contracts are hidden, as are the thousands of workers who are trapped within this broken system.

NELP conducted a survey of 567 of the workers and found that 74 percent earn less than $10 an hour. Only 26 percent got sick days and just 11 percent received employer-provided healthcare – 58 percent report no benefits at all. One in five is falling back on Medicaid for health care and 14 percent say they depend on food stamps.

It’s not supposed to be like this. “These are employees working on behalf of America,” the Demos report notes, “doing jobs that we have decided are worthy of public funding — yet they’re being treated in a very un-American way.”

Demonstrators holds a sign and chant slogans outside of a Wendy's fast food restaurant, Thursday, April 4, 2013 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Demonstrators holds a sign and chant slogans outside of a Wendy's fast food restaurant, Thursday, April 4, 2013 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

But as you know, virtually every low-wage worker in America is taking it in the neck, not just those with jobs outsourced by the feds. Walmart — with revenues last year of nearly $470 billion dollars — is threatening to abandon plans to build three giant stores in Washington, because the city council insists they pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour. Keep in mind that if adjusted for productivity, the Federal minimum wage should be almost twice that amount. But Walmart is in a tizzy over the Washington living wage demands, despite the heirs of founder Sam Walton already socking away almost $116 billion. You have to ask, how much is enough when no matter what you have is never enough?

Which also brings us to McDonald’s. The fast food giant’s new CEO Don Thompson was just awarded a pay package of nearly $14 million. Perhaps that helps explain why McDonald’s has set up a website with the credit card company Visa to show its fulltime workers how to get by on the minimum wage it pays, which turns out to be a little over $1,100 a month. All you have to do, they say, is get a second job, and not spend any money on food because presumably you can live on the crumbs from Don Thompson’s table. That’s a lot of leftover Chicken McNuggets.

Clearly, the owners of capital are determined to wring even greater wealth from the sweat and sacrifice of workers, deepening our spin into economic inequality – until and unless, in solidarity, those workers stand up and demand a fair wage for a hard day’s work.

A protest outside Union Station on July 19, 2013, where dozens of concession workers walked off the job and held a rally demanding better pay from vendors in federal buildings. Courtesy of

D.C. workers protesting to demand better pay from vendors in federal buildings. Courtesy of

In Washington, some of them are standing up. On Thursday, July 18, federally subcontracted concessions workers at Union Station briefly walked off the job. It was the third such strike in eight weeks – others took place at the Smithsonian and the Ronald Reagan Building – organized by the Good Jobs Nation campaign that, according to the ThinkProgress website is “pressuring the government to stop paying poverty wages through its private-sector partners.” The walkout at the Reagan building actually has triggered a Labor Department investigation into whether employers at the building’s food court owe their workers as much as a million dollars in back wages and damages.

It’s a tiny start. But there are two million federally subcontracted jobs out there nationwide and that’s more than McDonald’s and Walmart employ combined. And unlike the appalling situation for workers at those two consumer monoliths and others, President Obama could help solve the problem with a stroke of his pen — by signing an executive order demanding a living wage for private employees working on government contracts.

Back in 2010, a year and a month after Barack Obama began his first term, The New York Times reported that the White House was “planning to use the government’s enormous buying power to prod private companies to improve wages and benefits for millions of workers.”

Mr. President, what’s holding you up?

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  • marcial

    come on 2014!

  • Strawman411

    “Mr. President, what’s holding you up?”

    You gotta dance with them what brung ya. That’s what holding him up, along with everyone else owing their elected seats to their corporate campaign funders.

    Until we can overcome the common acceptance that money = speech, thus shall it ever be.

  • marvin steiner

    Come on 2016!Our White House has to be occupied by someone of conviction and courage.

  • Anonymous

    THhe senate just passed a huge jobs bill – but unfortunately , it was a jobs bill for foriegners with guestworker visas as the Comprehinsive Immigration Bill has provisions for massive increases to the visa limits.

    In the IT visa alone, the H-1b visa, the limit was more than tripled. There are already 800k H-1b guestworker visa holders in the US and so in less than 5yrs fter the auto renewals kick in, we’ll have 2.4 million of these people, primarily Indians in the USA.

    THEy would have displaced americans from the jobs that the americans were doing as they wd be doing it a lower pay. Also, they will have also suppressed the wages of the ones still with jobs as there would be bigger supply of cheaper virtual slave labor (w/o discretion to quit a job for better pastures).

    THis massive increase to guestworker visas will also further entrench the hiring practices of companies to first look to foriegners to fill opening than to americans so that the american will be treated , ironically, more a foreigner than the foriegner.

    Please call your House Reps and demand to remove the guestworker increases from the Immigration bill and deal with them separetly as it is closer to labor/e,ployement than to immigration, as guestworkers do not immigrate to the US.

    At a minimum, demand that they add a min comp level to the H-1b worker of $100k ( 75 th pctile) so that there is less of a discplacement of americans from middle class jobs. this will also be closer to what the intention of this visa is for companies – to provide talent that the companies cannot get from america.

  • OH

    In order to get his H1B visas – the main thing in the Immigration Bill as far as corporate anti-America is concerned – Obama was willing to give the Mexican drug cartels more money for their border security indirectly through the conservative border profiteers.

  • James Garrison II

    What’s taking so long Mr. President ?

  • Anonymous

    Davis/Bacon Act requires government contracts to pay at least prevailing wages for the work performed in the geographical areas in which they are used. That being said, insurance and benefits are rarely the norm with these kind of jobs. Also, it’s more like 10 million contract workers work for the feds. That’s 5 times as many executive branch employee. And it’s the fed worker that has to deal with pay freezes.

  • Agustin Markarian

    “What’s taking so long Mr. President ?”

    I think he know how this will look to the public. It ill be portrayed across most non-left media, including the all might (-.-) CNN as government giving themselves a pay raise while not pushing for more jobs. And this will all be blamed on a president acting like a dictator (again -.-) and his out-of-place, tyrannical, executive orders.

  • Bradford Nelson Bray

    My wife works for one of these government contractors after nearly 2 years unable to find work. Thankful, finally, to find work, However they treat their employees like children, very punitive, even abusive. pay starts about $10/hr. yeah….great economy….NOT. I’m VERY disappointed in Obama. Was hopeful he would give this country REAL healthcare (like Europe, England, Canada, etc) AND a real Jobs program not unlike FDR. But, alas, he seems more concerned about “compromise” than helping millions of citizens who have been beat down and are still struggling just to go week to week. Tired of these millionaire politicians who work for the Corporate Government.


    What’s the hold up? Look, I’m no fan of Obama’s, and it may not apply in this case, but mostly the hold up has been the House Republicans using the over easy filibuster.

  • michaelbp

    Maybe the first question concerning McDonald’s specifically is whether improvement of line employee compensation alone wouldn’t serve to perpetuate an already unsustainable food industry by ingratiating the company to its employees?

  • leslie green

    Just like every thing else he’s said, it’s a lie. Simple, sad but true. Think of all the things he said he would do, gosh, he really brought up our hopes and our spirits with his promises only to let them plummet down to hell where he resides.

  • broseberry

    No kidding Mr. President! What exactly is holding you up? These statistics would embarrass the heck out of me, were I in your position! America, the land of opportunity has turned into a living nightmare for the working man/woman. They cannot sustain a family with slave wages, much less afford healthcare, whether it is called Obama care or any kind of health insurance. What will be done about it in this 5th year of your presidency? You must help this country now! The time is now! You promised!

  • MMIM

    There is no filibuster in the House, only in the Senate

  • Owen Johnson

    I’m afraid our President talks the talk but doesn’t bother to walk the walk. Or maybe I could say the way he chooses to walk doesn’t jibe with his talk. I guess that would make him like most politicians, wouldn’t it?

  • Gary

    The biggest problem on this issue is your Congress, not just the President, but if you paid attention in your Government class you would know that. Since this President was Elected we heard how the Republicans in the House would make him a ONE TERM PRESIDENT, and after he won the second Term, they said, WE WILL NOT WORK WITH THIS PRESIDENT. Some say the reason must be the weather, others say its because he is Black and yet a few more say the Republicans are acting like spoiled children who can’t get over losing an Election. I say we have a problem and for the past Five Years now Republicans in the House have refused to work on any Bills that will help Working American Families and the Poor. They have however made sure the Rich did not get taxed, and they created the same Bill over and over and over and over to the amount of 38 TIMES… It says give the Rich tax reduction and repeal Obama Care.

    Well the fact is the Rich and the Corporation do not need any more tax breaks as they are already paying little or nothing while the working class pays for most of the Government today. Repeal Obama Care, now that is really getting old as it a flag for the Republicans to shed a tear on as they have little left to charm the America Public with. They have lied, just about everything including Benghazi, the IRS and the NSA, oh and the banks.

    First off so called Scandals created in the House by Republicans does not work when so many people know the truth.

    What gets me is they put a person who has been arrested twice for stealing cars, arrested for carrying a weapon without a permit and is still being investigate by the Insurance Company for a business of his that just happened to burn down after he removed, furniture, paintings, important papers and computers.. Darrell Issa is
    the man in charge of the so called Scandal Investigation.. Which in fact is not a scandal at all.

    One thing that is important for people to understand is our New Health Care Program is already helping MILLIONS UPON MILLION OF AMERICANS.. Young families who could not afford insurance now can, and people who could not get medical care, now can. Over the years we have paid high costs for health care and the top CEO’S made Millions of Dollars. Right now Costs are lower then every one expected and even in New York we are hearing they expect most people who have been paying for Health Care will be paying 50% less. But how is that so, since the Republicans have said its going to destroy this Nation? I guess in the same way they were yelling Impeach the President during his first week saying he is going to destroy America.

    Funny part is, the President, has been working and so has the Senate, but the House has not. NOW IF YOU DO SOME MATH SINCE YOU PROBABLY PAY TAXES…

    Every day Tax Payers have to pay over $52,000.00 a Day for just the House. Now lets say while they played there games with that one bill, over and over and over again.. 38 TIMES and it only took one day for each time, we would have

    $52,000.00 x 38 = $1,976,000.00 WOW AREN’T YOU EXCITED?
    Not to mention that over the past Five Years we have seen NO WORK FROM THE REPUBLICANS IN THE HOUSE…NONE.

    They have not worked on one single issue for Working American Families or the Poor.. NOT ONE ISSUE.. NOT ONE BILL…

    They could have created Jobs with the Jobs Bills.. or the Bill for the Infrastructure. Now that one would have created Jobs all across this Nation. But they didn’t.

    John Boehner would not even look at the Bills.. Would not help our Veterans and Worked AGAINST WOMEN AND PEOPLE WHO FELL IN LOVE.

    But John said the Key Stone Pipe Line will Create Jobs.. Millions of Jobs..

    Here are your facts.. short term jobs, with Oil Flowing from Canada across our Nation with leaks and spills and down to the Refineries that will then ship the Oil to places like China. Will that help ALL AMERICANS IN THIS NATION…?

    NO. The price of fuel will not be lowered and the jobs being short term will not help but for a year maybe at the most. Maybe two, but only the Pipe Liners and there helpers..

    Lets see who will benefit from this Pipe Line? I guess Canadian Oil Companies and the steel plants in China for the casing that will be bought and used.. and the Refineries that will make a killing and the tanking Corporations that will haul it to places like China..



    You may very well disagree with me 100%, but I have to ask you if you work for a living what have the Republicans done for you?

    In some states now they are trying to pass laws to do away with the OVER TIME PAY…and in other states that are Republican Controlled they are trying to pass laws to REMOVE THE 40 HOUR WORK WEEK….



  • Gary

    The lie is what you hear from Fox or Rush.. Pay attention to facts and let us all know what the Republicans have done for you…

  • Gary

    You have to think about this.. Since this President was sworn into office he only had a Democratic Majority for Four Months.. The rest of the time we have had Republicans CONTROLLING ISSUES.. Think about who it really is that has done no work over the Past Five Years.. You said you are disappointed in Obama, but your not disappointed in the fact the Republicans have not and will not work on any issue to better Working American Families.?

  • Troublemaker

    Democrats and their liberal/socialist policies have brought America to this point. They only believe in Big Government which is a killer of free-enterprise and the can-do spirit that built this country. It’s only going to get worse as the population is now dependent on government support more than ever… it’s a slippery-slope where it’s too late to turn back. That is, until it all falls apart and we have to start over from scratch.

  • william cooper


  • william cooper

    Yes someone like George Bush Jr.

  • william cooper


  • william cooper

    MMIM I guess you dont know what going on in congress.If you think the president makes all the decisions in America Your probably a republican.

  • Bradford Nelson Bray

    What we need is NOT a compromise President, but a Teddy Roosevelt who will stick to his guns, take his case to The People, from jobs to health care, regardless of who sits in Congress!!! He was elected by the people, NOT to bend over and give in on any issue the Republicans whine about. He ran on Universal Health Care….NOT compromising with the Private Health Insurance companies!!! He has backtracked on nearly everything from torture to endless war to continued worship of the Military Industrial Complex. He is NO Democrat… not in my estimation of The People’s Party. He is just as much a moderate Republican as Nixon was. That’s a fact. Look at the record! So, yes, Republicans always side with private business…which is why we need a populous President to find a back bone and FIGHT for the people!!!

  • marvin steiner

    Turn the shower pressure down,concussion is causing hallucinations.

  • Seeker7

    But unfortunately I suspect the FOXified American public has bought into claims that Obama is a “socialist” (NOT!)….such is the political literacy of the public who the founders assumed would take “educated” positions on issues of the day.

  • 6figure engineer

    Best comment ever. Its nice to see there are still some educated people on here. Thank you.

  • Bradford Nelson Bray

    Yeah, I get it. Legislative and Executive. Civics 101. My point, and really my ONLY point is: BECAUSE the Republicans control the house and have a strong minority in the Senate, the “working man and woman” really only have one “Representative” in the Washington D.C….and that is our Democratic President!!! He is NOT the first President in our history, as you know, to be struggling against a deaf House. Teddy Roosevelt went directly to the people to pull down the monopolies! Harry Truman went directly to the people, calling out IN PUBLIC “The Do Nothing Congress!” and change happened. What does this President do with his bully pulpit??? He gives lectures and “plays nice.” That’s Bull$h*t in my opinion! He NOT there to play nice!!! He has compromised on EVERYTHING. As to your comment about healthcare…premiums and out of pocket is STILL crushing families…families WITH insurance! I am one of them! I know many others! So as far as I’m concerned, the private insurance companies (who wrote the final draft of the health care law btw) are the ones who got the better end of the deal….NOT the working man or woman trying to pay the rising cost of health care. I agree with everything you say about the current Republican Corporate Government. I get it! What I don’t get is why we don’t have a President raising holy hell…every day…on TV…on the radio…calling out these bums who are getting in the way of real reform and rebuilding of this country??? A far as I’m concerned, his window to really make any impact is lost. The economy is as bad as ever with the millions of added jobs that pay poverty wages and little to no benefits! Obama hasn’t fooled anyone, especially those of us who have been waiting for him to come out of his corner fighting mad and swinging FOR the average person who is barely making ends meet! Well, he has about year and a half to come out of his corner. I think we’ll have a better chance of seeing Punxsutawney Phil seeing his own shadow next winter!!!

  • walt sautter

    “Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements and property leases go to private companies that pay low wages, provide few benefits, and offer employees little opportunity to work their way into the middle class.”
    This is just the plan politicians have for public education going private. The whole thing is being set up by the constant degradation of teachers, attempts to end collective bargaining for public workers, elimination of tenure and unreasonable evaluation perimeters.
    What are teacher unions doing about this? In my opinion, not much except whining !
    It appears to me that the honchos in the unions might be more concerned about protecting their big salaries than really confronting the situation head on!

  • Bradford Nelson Bray

    Thank you Walt. You have made a great point that can cover virtually all that is wrong in our economy right now. The days of effective unions (starting in the 1930’s through the mid 70’s) are over. The Business Class of both parties have effectively chipped away at anything in our laws that have helped the average person be protected against The Robber Barons of today. And you are right about union leaders…they have become the very economic landlords they spent years fighting!

  • yourneighbor

    Two party politics is a distracting sideshow. Both parties are bought and paid for. There is no Federal money to increase wages. The country is broke and living on borrowed money. The ultra-wealthy banking elite are the puppeteers. They have no politics. They have funded both sides of the worst wars of the last century. They rule through the Federal Reserve Bank to which Congress has abdicated its authority over the money supply. We are very close to seeing the disastrous effects of this in the collapse of the US dollar, and the credit and bond markets. Please read Crash Course, by Chris Martenson. There is still time to prepare for this unprecedented economic collapse. Uncle Sam will not bail us out. Neither will the bankers. We will have to prepare ourselves, our families and our local communities. Read, plan, share, act. There really is no other option. Be kind.

  • Arianna Doxis

    The larger the city, the larger the racial wage gap, according to researchers Elizabeth Ananat, Shihe Fu and Stephen L. Ross, whose findings were recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. They say that social separations can affect economic disadvantage, even within companies.

  • Arianna Doxis

    It turns out that taxpayers rather than the employers are paying for food and medical
    care for employees of Walmart, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and
    Burger King, who are too cheap to pay decent wages so their employees are on
    Medicaid and Food Stamps while the owners are on the super-rich list.

  • Peter

    What is the difference between Obama and Bush – nothing. An exaggeration but you get the point.

  • Anonymous

    I’m also very disappointed in Obama – he gives all these great speeches and then does NOTHING to follow through. Sometimes I think he’s a secret mole of the Republican agenda. His foreign policy is a disaster with his drones, secret assassinations and new wars. BTW, didn’t he promise to close down Guantanamo Bay SEVEN YEARS AGO?!?!

  • Anonymous

    You are right. Republican party has moved so far to the extreme right that supposedly “socialist” Obama (what a joke) is just a moderate Repub. I used to vote Republican myself but it became painfully obvious to me that supply side economics doesn’t work. It only allows already wealthy people to keep more $$ and become much more powerful. That is no way to run a democratic society.

  • meschief

    Too much Campaigning and NO Governing is whats holding it up!!!! BS to his mantra “its everyone elses fault”!!!