Washington, D.C.

The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of public witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington Office, and other religious leaders joined striking U.S. Senate contract janitors and food service workers to urge President Obama to support efforts to raise wages. Hundreds walked off their jobs to protest low wages and benefits. They’ve joined striking workers from the U.S. Capitol, Smithsonian Institution and other federal landmarks where private companies receive lucrative contracts to run food, janitorial and other services.

The workers are asking the president to support the “Fight for $15” movement and sign the Model Employer Executive Order that gives preferences to federal contractors who pay at least $15 an hour and provide benefits that include paid leave. The workers are also seeking collective bargaining rights.

The federal contracting process awards contracts to the lowest bidder, making the U.S. government the largest low-wage job creator in the country, funding more than two million poverty-level jobs through contracts, loans and grants to private businesses, according to Good Jobs Nation, an organization of federal contract workers. The organization argues that taxpayer dollars should create good jobs that pay livable wages, benefits, paid sick leave and dignity in the workplace.

This is the twelfth time in two years contract workers have gone on strike. During that time, President Obama announced he would sign executive orders raising the minimum wage to $10.10. Private companies like The Gap, McDonalds, Wal-Mart and IKEA followed with announcements to raise starting pay in several cities. But federal contract workers say they need more than minimum wage to survive.

“Our nation cannot boast of being the land of the free, while allowing companies to pay wages that enslave its citizens to debt, poverty and an inability to provide a decent living for themselves, their children and generations to come,” said Nelson, speaking at a news conference with striking workers. “The workers who we stand with represent the hopes of current and prospective students, parents, children, spouses and grandparents. They represent a lifeline of hope not only for themselves, but others who depend on them to assist their dreams, hopes and future possibilities.”

Nelson and other religious leaders wrote a letter to the president encouraging him to do more to pull the workers and their families out of increasing cycles of poverty and low wages. “We believe every person is a child of God, that God wants shalom, that is, peace and wholeness for each of us, and that there is inherent dignity in work and the fruits of labor. Our nation generates great abundance yet only a few among us share in the bounty. This growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else is not only a political issue, but also a moral one that we are compelled by conscience to address.”

The complete letter and list of signatures and Nelson's full remarks are available on the Office of Public Witness blog.