Democrats are planning a yearlong campaign against economic inequality as the midterm elections approach, and President Obama will kick it off in earnest Wednesday when he signs an executive order raising the contracting standards for workers on federal contracts. Over 300,000 future federal workers who would have made less than $10.10 an hour will now receive at least that.
The move is significant for a few reasons, the first being the obvious matter of fairness for these contract workers. The federal government, through contracting, employs millions of low-wage workers in a variety of large and small industries, as this chart from the think tank Demos shows:
That taxpayers are, in effect, underwriting low-wage jobs is problematic not only for these workers, but in a symbolic sense as well. The executive order Obama will sign Wednesday is hopefully a shift in thinking for Washington policymakers when it comes to substandard wages.
It also puts some muscle into Obama’s promise, repeated often during the 2014 State of the Union address, to use executive actions to get around a Congress that seems hopelessly gridlocked.
The order will unfortunately not affect workers on current federal contracts. White House officials believe changing their wages immediately would be impossible. The Procurement Act allows the president to modify contracting standards as long as the changes are both economic and efficient, and senior White House officials told The Nation that forcing changes to already signed contracts would likely violate that standard and provoke legal challenges.
But the good news is that federal contracts last only five years, so that’s the maximum amount of time it will take for all federal contract workers to be operating under the new standards.
There was some uproar last month among advocates for the disabled, because it appeared that Obama’s order would not apply to thousands of disabled workers on federal contracts. But Mike Elk of In These Times reports that the order will indeed include wage standards for those workers as well.
That victory underscores a larger victory for progressive activism here. The White House initially said it was unwilling to sign this order absent congressional action, but focused campaigns from think tanks, organizers and unions apparently changed the White House’s mind. That’s a lesson activists will take to heart as the year progresses.