By Josh Hicks
Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus invited two guests to represent low-wage workers at Tuesday’s State of the Union address, where President Obama is expected to lay out his vision for improving the lives of middle-class Americans.
Ariana Goodwin, of Madison, Wis., who worked numerous retail and fast-food jobs before completing courses to become a certified nursing assistant, is scheduled to attend the event as a guest of Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI).
Goodwin, 25, has two children, and said she never earned more than $9 an hour and never had health benefits with her previous jobs.
“I have had to rely on the help of food pantries and local organizations to make sure my two kids had the basic necessities like food and diapers,” she said in a statement on Sunday. “A higher minimum wage would give me a little more money each month to feed my kids, and it would mean I don’t have to rely on others to help me get by.”
Goodwin builds houses with the nonprofit group Operation Fresh Start and plans to begin her medical career after taking the required exams.
Minneapolis resident Veronica Mendez, 35, who is co-director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha’s (Center for Workers United in Struggle), plans to attend the event as a guest of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN).
Mendez and her organization organized a string of strikes last year by low-wage janitors who clean big-box retail stores, prompting at least one company, Target, to require higher labor standards for the firms that employ the workers.
“Through our efforts we have won a number of changes to improve wages and working conditions for workers,” Mendez said in a statement last week. “All of us will continue to organize and fight until everyone can work with dignity and justice with a voice on the job.”
Already, the White House in recent weeks has previewed proposals that could help low-wage workers, including raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and providing free community college education. Last year, Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from its current $7.25.
On the federal side of things, Obama last year established a minimum wage of $10.10 for workers under new federal contracts. The action answered calls from a small but persistent workers movement that sprang up in the nation’s capital in 2013.
The advocacy group Good Jobs Nation, which helped organize the movement, began a push last year for collective-bargaining rights for federally contracted low-wage workers.
Federally contracted employees do a host of jobs, from serving fast food and staffing the souvenir shops at the Smithsonian museums to washing dishes and laundry at military bases.
Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a potential presidential candidate for 2016, met with such workers last month as they demonstrated in Washington. He called for Obama to implement a policy of awarding contracts to firms that pay those employees at least $15 an hour and provide them with benefits.
“The federal government cannot and will not be the largest employer of low-wage workers in this country,” Sanders said in a statement at the time.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will address that issue on Tuesday.