Opinion

The Great Debate

FDR set the terms for labor executive orders

By Dorian T. Warren
February 26, 2014

Many critics have called President Barack Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage for federally contracted workers an unprecedented bold action. The president bypassed a gridlocked Congress to increase pay to $10.10 an hour — and raise labor standards for the only federal workers directly within his authority.

This move is a significant step in combating income inequality. The federal government is the largest low-wage job creator — with more than 2 million low-wage workers. That’s more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined.

This move is bold, yes. But not unprecedented. The path to this solution was paved more than 70 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During World War Two, de facto racial discrimination in federal agencies’ hiring standards meant that black workers were essentially barred from federal jobs. The civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph rallied opposition against this discrimination by organized labor. Workers, community leaders and faith leaders united to pressure Roosevelt into taking action. FDR was facing the threat of a 50,000-person march on Washington.

Roosevelt responded with an executive order — the Fair Employment Act of 1941. He declared “there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in government, because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”

That collective action made the difference in 1941, and the same coalition has emerged again today. Over the past year, workers and community and faith leaders have pressed to raise living standards for federally contracted workers facing poverty wages, no benefits and unlawful behavior by their employers.

In the past few months, workers at some of Washington’s most iconic federal buildings have gone on strike — without a union. They took to the streets because they felt it was the only way to make their voices heard. Their courage was similar to what we’ve seen from the striking employees at fast food chains and retail companies.

The president’s executive order has now improved conditions for countless women and men working under government contracts across the country. History shows that many workers have not had this kind of backing from the Oval Office.

In 1981, for example, members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went on strike for better working conditions and higher pay. Rather than negotiate, President Ronald Reagan declared the strike a violation of the law and ordered them back to work. When most refused, he gave the order to fire them. It set a dangerous precedent that effectively granted private companies the right to ignore unions and hire and fire workers at will.

That’s one reason Obama’s action is so significant. It doesn’t just signal to corporations that they must pay workers a living wage. It also sets a new model for future presidents, who can follow in Obama’s footsteps by expanding the rights and protections of workers through executive authority.

If members of Congress are going to refuse to act for the betterment of our communities and our economy, our president doesn’t have to follow their lead.

We deserve more from our leaders — and Obama has demonstrated it is not only possible, but it is the right thing to do.

 

 

PHOTO (TOP): African-American worker tending an electric phosphte smelting furnace, to produce elemental phosphorus at a Tennessee Valley Authority chemical plant in the Muscle Shoals area, 1942. Courtesy of FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM AND LIBRARY/Tennessee Valley Authority.

PHOTO (INSERT): African-American jackhammer operator at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Douglas Dam on the French Broad River, June 1942. Courtesy of FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM AND LIBRARY.

 

 

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