As Pope Francis arrived in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, one thousand federal service workers—including many at the US Capitol, where the pope will speak later in the week—went on strike to protest poverty wages, poor working conditions, and the lack of a union.
The federal government is the largest low-wage employer in the country, despite President Obama’s recent executive order requiring federal contractors to pay at least $10.10 an hour. At an interfaith prayer service with the workers before a march to the Capitol, faith leaders decried the situation and appealed to the pontiff, who has spoken out strongly about income inequality as “the root of social evil.”
“Low-wage work is a sin against you and against all of human dignity,” Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, told the crowd. “So we are so excited that today Pope Francis will come here, because his message has struck a chord in all of us in this nation. And we know the day after tomorrow, when he speaks to the Congress, that he is going to lift up your cause and our cause of economic justice and of just wages and working conditions for all of you.”
The workers, organized under the auspices of Good Jobs Nation, which is funded by several large labor unions, had previously sent a letter to the Vatican asking for an audience with the pope during his visit.
Santos Villatoro, who works breakfast service inside the Dirksen Senate Office building, addressed the prayer service and later described to The Nation through a translator why she was joining the strike.
“It’s a very busy place. I start at 6 am. I’ve been working there for eight years. Sometimes I don’t get eight hours a day. That’s not fair. I earn very little,” she said. “The annual increase we get in our salary is five or six cents per year. I think it’s a shame that even though we work in a federal building, in the Capitol, we get treated that way.”
Villatoro has a heart condition that requires a pacemaker, and said she has a doctor’s note saying she is not to lift anything over 20 pounds. But she said the large coffee containers she sets up every morning for senators, staff, and visitors weigh “25 or 26 pounds.”
She also described how three years ago she slipped on some metal grates on a snowy day and injured her hip. “Instead of calling an ambulance, they just picked me up and put me in a wheelchair. And they rode me to Union Station and told me to get a taxi to the hospital,” she said. “Imagine if I didn’t have money to pay for a taxi, how would I have gotten there?”