A cook in the U.S. Senate cafeteria, Bertrand Olotara, went on strike Wednesday to protest the wages he says he receives from his employer, Compass Group, a company contracted by the federal government. A single father who says he makes $12 an hour and clocks in over 70 hours a week between two jobs to make ends meet, Bertrand Olotara announced his protest in an opinion piece published in The Guardian. Writing that he relied on food stamps to feed his children, Olotara says in the piece that taxpaying Americans end up picking up the slack when corporations and federal contractors alike refuse to pay their employees living wages. (Restaurant Associates, the subsidiary of Compass Group that employs Olotara, tells Bustle in a statement it "takes pride in paying above market competitive wages.")
Olotara also called on President Barack Obama, along with the horde of would-be presidential contenders, to address the issue of economic justice and the minimum wage in their campaigns.
"Many senators canvas the country giving speeches about creating 'opportunity' for workers and helping our kids achieve the 'American dream' — most don’t seem to notice or care that workers in their own building are struggling to survive," Olotara wrote in The Guardian.
Olotara's employer, Compass Group, contracts with the federal government to provide the catering services in the Senate building. In a statement, Restaurant Associates said:
While we’re unable to comment on personal information for any one associate, RA can confirm that its contracts with the United States Senate and the Capitol Visitors Center are in full compliance with the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act (SCA) and the wage and benefits provisions within the SCA.
In the op-ed, Olotara rails against lawmakers for what he alleges is their lack of concern with what he and his co-workers earn per hour, and pushes for Congress to reconsider contracting with companies that do not treat their employees fairly and give them some form of bargaining power.
"[N]one of the senators or government officials to whom we serve food asked me or my co-workers whether this multinational corporation, headquartered in the United Kingdom, is treating American workers right," he wrote.
Obama signed an executive order in February 2014 that raised the minimum wage for all federal contractors up to $10.10 an hour; nationwide, the minimum wage hovers at a stingy $7.25 an hour.
Olotara’s story reveals that hard work and a college degree do not necessarily make a middle class existence.
I’ve done everything that politicians say you need to do to get ahead and stay ahead: I work hard and play by the rules; I even graduated from college and worked as a substitute teacher for five years. But I got laid-off and I now I’m stuck trying to make ends meet with dead-end service jobs.
Which is not to say that those low-wage employees without college educations deserve minimum wage, few job protections, and unpredictable work schedules. But Olotara illustrates the significant structural problems that Americans of all stripes face if lawmakers continue to pass laws and pursue policies that consolidate wealth at the top while making it increasingly harder for the working classes to enjoy financial stability.
Olotara’s criticisms arrived only a week after thousands of low-wage workers from across industries and social justice advocates participated in a day of protests for a $15 minimum wage and collective bargaining rights for America’s most vulnerable workers. Organizers called the protests the biggest day of protests by low-wage workers in U.S. history. Employees from across low-wage industries, including fast food workers, adjunct faculty members, home health care aids and janitors, joined college students and social justice advocates to hold protests, walk-outs and strikes in more than 200 cities.
The Raise Up for $15 movement — which began in November 2012 with fast food workers and has since been bankrolled by the Service Employees International Union — has morphed over the past two years from a campaign limited to correcting labor abuses in one industry to a broader push for social and economic justice. As Gary Chaison, an industrial relations professor at Clark University, told The Guardian:
In the Fight for $15, unions are helping to organize on a community basis, a group of workers who are on the fringe of the economy. It’s not about union members protecting themselves. It’s about moving other people up. This is the whole civil rights movement all over again.
According to a 2014 Pew poll, 73 percent support giving America’s most marginalized workers a raise.
With all of the debates around economic injustice, the minimum wage is certain to be a hot button topic during the 2016 election. Surprise, surprise — most of the potential GOP contenders for the White House are either against raising the minimum wage in the current economic climate or against the idea of a minimum wage altogether. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) both oppose hiking the federal minimum wage. For his part, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has advocated for eliminating the federal minimum wage and leaving any sort of decisions around wage requirements up to the states.
On the other hand, Democratic candidates are trying to toe the populist line by demonstrating their seriousness about increased wages. On April 15, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted her support for the low-wage workers strike, writing, "Every American deserves a fair shot at success. Fast food & child care workers shouldn't have to march in streets for living wages."
But as Danny Vinik notes at The New Republic, Clinton has left a less than convincing populist record. She has said she would like to see Congress raise the federal minimum wage, but has been vague about when and by how much. Add to that her close ties with Wall Street and the fact that her husband’s administration oversaw most of the deregulation of the financial markets, and you can see why some folks are worried about whether Clinton’s emphasis on economic inequality represents mere politicking or a true political commitment.
If any of the presidential hopefuls want to demonstrate that they will advocate for the hardworking American family man, Olotara closes his opinion piece, they know where to find him.
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