WASHINGTON (PAI)–By a 196-211 margin, the GOP majority in the U.S. House rejected a Democratic attempt to aid low-wage workers. All 186 voting House Democrats and 10 Republicans favored the move, which would have barred federal contracts to firms that violate minimum-wage and overtime-pay laws. All the opponents were Republicans.
But not all pro-worker moves failed during the long debate on the night of May 29-30. By voice vote, lawmakers reaffirmed “Buy America” language in federal law, offered by Rep. Allan Grayson, D-Fla. And by a 225-183 margin, they approved a second Grayson amendment, inserting a federal “reporters shield law” into the money bill they debated.
Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus, tried to insert the ban on contracts to firms that steal wages from their workers. All three moves came during debate on the money bill funding the State, Justice and Commerce Departments for the year starting Oct. 1. They lost when the majority questioned what their amendment actually said. Ellison said the firms owe the workers at least $4 million.
Ellison and Grijalva were going to bat for low-wage workers who toil in restaurants in food courts in federal buildings, such as the Reagan Center in downtown Washington, at Union Station, at the Smithsonian Institution, and on various military bases nationwide.
For more than a year, those underpaid – and sometimes unpaid – fast-food workers whose firms had contracts at the facilities, have staged periodic 1-hour walkouts demanding a living wage, longer hours and the right to organize without employer interference.
Their leaders, from the group Good Jobs Nation, recently met top Obama wage and hour enforcement officials to press their case against the fast-food firms. In a prior response, Obama issued an executive order saying any fast-food firm signing a new contract with the feds must pay the workers at least $10.10 an hour. His order doesn’t help workers right now.
Ellison and Grijalva tried to put the purchasing power of the federal government behind the cause of raising the workers’ wages. They didn’t succeed. “The federal government could lead the way by disqualifying contractors who practice wage theft, but House Republicans voted tonight against an amendment to do exactly that,” they said afterwards.
“No hardworking American should ever have to worry about whether her employer will refuse to pay her when she works overtime or take money out of her paycheck, especially if she works for a federal contractor,” Ellison told his colleagues during the floor debate.
“Right now, federal contractors who violate the Fair Labor Standards Act are still allowed to apply for contracts,” he continuing, saying the amendment denies contracts “to those who violate the Fair Labor Standards Act to deny workers the pay they earned.
“We may not agree on the minimum wage or we may not agree on a lot of other things,”
Ellison told the Republicans. “But Americans on both sides of the aisle believe that a penny earned is a penny that must be paid. Any time a contractor is found to have violated a
worker’s rights and is found to have been guilty of that, according to the law, that contractor should not benefit from the money in this particular bill.”
The shield law, a key cause of The Newspaper Guild-CWA, would let reporters protect their sources from Justice Department subpoenas – such as the subpoena which sent then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail for 85 days during the controversy over who leaked a CIA operative’s name – in almost all cases. The House voted for the shield, 225-183.
Reporters have been waiting for 42 years for a federal shield law, Grayson said. His move would have barred the Justice Department from using money for such subpoenas. But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., called Grayson’s amendment vague and said the issue of who it covers deserves more hearings and study.
“Journalists are in a quandary,” Grayson told his colleagues. “The Constitution and the 1st Amendment provide for freedom of speech and of the press. It is completely incongruous
to say we have freedom of the press, but the federal government can subpoena your sources and put them and you in prison – you, if you don’t comply.”
Ironically, three days later, the U.S. Supreme Court raised that possibility in the case of New York Times reporter James Risen, a Newspaper Guild member. It said prosecutors could jail him for refusing to reveal a source. That drew protests from TNG President Bernie Lunzer.
Grayson asserted that 49 of the 50 states have some form of reporter’s shield law, curbing prosecutorial zeal to subpoena journalists and force them to reveal their sources. That revelation threat, on the federal level, chills sources from exposing wrongdoing via the press, he noted. The threat also lets prosecutors toss journalists in jail.
Grayson’s Buy America amendment would help prevent Obama’s U.S. Trade Representative from negotiating the principle away when talking with other governments about trade pacts. Nobody spoke or voted against it.
Workers and their allies have been lobbying against giving the president – Obama and his successors – so-called “fast-track” trade authority to push legislation implementing trade pacts, without worker rights, through Congress on single up-or-down votes. The votes would occur after little debate and with no changes allowed.
Grayson invoked the possibility of fast-track to convince his colleagues to let the USTR know the 80-year-old Buy America language must stand.
“Hard-earned American taxpayer dollars should be reused here at home. They should be going back into our economy and putting Americans back to work. I would hate to see this fundamental principle of government procurement undermined in any way by any agreement now being negotiated by the Trade Representative or anybody else in this administration
or any future administration,” he explained.