New Orleans One of the things I missed while on my work-cation in Montana was the emergence of a newish labor-backed workers advocacy organization called Good Jobs Nation. The unions backing this play are SEIU, Teamsters, and the Farmworkers, all members of the Change To Win (C2W) federation, as was the UFCW, another supporter, until recently. The community partners in Washington, D.C. where its work has been based over the last six months include Jobs with Justice, the Interfaith Worker Center, and OUR DC, formerly DC ACORN. In common with other recent worker-and-community based direct action, advocacy organizations among Walmart and fast food workers, this also does not seem a real effort to unionize the workers. In contrast with those efforts though, this advocacy has real prospect of greater success than just counting the number of press clips or web hits, largely because Good Jobs Nation has made its stand in favor of federally subcontracted service workers, who in fact are significantly unionized already, offering a win-win strategy where effective advocacy can lead directly to higher wages and benefits for unionized workers among the 2 million who are subcontracted, and maybe even greater unionization in some job classifications.
The most recent dustup seems to be a half-dozen wage theft claims filed with the Department of Labor for some workers being denied minimum wages and overtime. They won a commitment from the General Services Administration to meet with them, and the GSA sent a letter to their subcontractors telling them to fly right.
Here’s what is really happening and why it’s important.
All federally subcontracted work is covered under the Services Contract Act (SCA), which is one of the triumvirate of federal laws that mandate, among other things, the payment of prevailing wages not only in the service sector but also in the ship building industry through Walsh-Healy and the construction industry through Davis-Bacon. The key feature is that contractors when bidding cannot bid for a wage and benefits package that is less than the prevailing wage for job classifications being subcontracted in the local SMSA area. The DOL is supposed to refresh and update these wage determinations regularly, but given federal staffing cutbacks and sequesters undoubtedly what once was a certain call ever couple of years now has aged significantly. As important to unions, the SCA provides no incentive for a bidding contractor to try to undercut collectively bargained wages and benefits for unionized workers, because under section 4C of the SCA, the terms and conditions of the collective agreement become the de factor area wage determination.
Are you following me here? When Good Jobs Nation says that it has filed DOL complaints for contractors paying less than the minimum wage and shorting workers on overtime, that doesn’t mean someone was paid $4 an hour. It may mean that someone was paid $9 an hour, that might be less than the DC area wage determination number so it was less than the allowable wage under the contract, regardless of whether it was higher than the federal minimum of $7.25 or the DC minimum wage of $8.25. Same for overtime, if the wage determination had said time-and-one half over 8 or double time on holidays, that would be a wage determination appeal to the DOL on overtime violations.
So with or without a union, pressure pays for this kind of advocacy, particularly if the DOL has not kept the wage determinations up to date and in nonunion situations there was nothing around to force the operator to provide the whole package, soup to nuts, holidays, vacations, pensions, health insurance, and so forth, all of which have a vital place in a wage determination or a union agreement, and all of which are really costs that are ultimately passed through to the real contractor, the federal government. For workers and their unions, the more you push and press, the more the levels will rise, along with all of the other ships at sea because of the impacts of wage compression on any labor market.
So, this is a hugely winning strategy, regardless of the tactics, especially if the unions and the Good Jobs Nation coalition are willing to provide the support and resources to win the wage determination appeals before the DOL. What it may not be is a winning strategy for lower wage workers.
For lower wage workers even the lousy, outdated wage determinations are better than most similar jobs in the marketplace. Of the 2 million subcontracted jobs many are now engineers, computer programmers, and higher enders that unions should, could, and would organize, but haven’t really figured out how to do so. Even on the lower end many of the janitorial and other jobs have gone to special affirmative programs to help achieve other federal mandates for hiring the differently abled for example.
Nonetheless, let’s hope that this strategy moves from DC outward to the rest of the country. We could all benefit, and this could be the federal contract workers equivalent of the very successful living wage campaigns around the country.