Low-Wage Capitol Workers Welcome Pope's Visit—With a Strike

Contract employees on the Hill have been trying to attract attention to their plight.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at an event held by striking Capitol workers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The workers held a religious procession to urge a minimum wage of $15 and to welcome Pope Francis before he meets with and addresses members of Congress on Thursday.  (Win McNamee AFP/Getty)

Facing the Capitol, the workers knelt in prayer. Heads bowed, arms outstretched, they prayed for Pope Francis’s message of economic justice to resonate at one of the central points of America’s political power. They held a fake popemobile plastered with Francis’s picture, quotes from the pontiff, and a message to the pope: “Low-Wage Workers Welcome You!”

Washington: Popemania has begun.

With Francis just hours away from landing on American soil, low-wage Capitol and federal contract workers organized by Good Jobs Nation went on strike Tuesday morning. Their demand: $15 an hour and a union.

This isn’t the first time that Capitol and federal contract workers have gone on strike to raise their pay to what they say would be a living wage. But with Francis—an equality advocate with one of the largest soapboxes—almost in their midst, they seized the moment to rally again, as many other activists will do in hopes that the pontiff will mention their cause during his first visit to the United States.

Earlier this month, more than 40 Capitol contract workers sent a letter to Francis, asking him to meet with them. “We want you to know that even though we serve the wealthy and the powerful in the Congress, we earn so little that we live in utter poverty,” the letter states.

Stories of this poverty—of Charles Gladden working in a Senate office building yet being homeless, of Sontia Bailey getting paid more at KFC than at the Capitol—have gained attention in recent months.

The morning began with a procession to the Lutheran Church of the Reformation. The participants sang Bob Marley lyrics (“Every little thing gonna be alright”). They held signs with messages for the pontiff: “Pope Francis, Welcome to the Capitol of Inequality;” “Pope Francis, We Serve Senators, Our Kids Are Poor;” and more.

Then, dozens of participants filed into the church, filling its pews. Spiritual leaders and advocates spoke. Capitol contract workers spoke. And an avid fighter to increase the minimum wage, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, spoke.

He addressed the same crowd in a similar fashion as he has in the past, eliciting cheers as he shook his fist and raised his voice, telling the crowd that the “United States of America today is the richest country in the history of the world, but most Americans don’t understand that or feel that because most of the wealth and most of the income is going to a handful of people at the top.”

But first, Sanders invoked the pontiff: “Today, as we welcome Pope Francis to the United States and U.S. Capitol, I hope that every member of Congress and the president will heed his call for social and economic justice.”