Smithsonian food workers strike over living wage

Photo by John Lewis

Traffic on Independence Avenue came to a halt as several dozen restaurant workers inside the Smithsonian Institution went on strike and marched from the Air and Space Museum to the Smithsonian castle Thursday.

Pointing to the D.C. Council's vote yesterday on the so-called "Walmart bill" as a precedent, they're also demanding a livable wage.

They're employed under federal concession agreements at Smithsonian museums. And today, they went on strike.

Organizers say the one-day strike includes restaurant workers from the National Museum of American History and the Air and Space Museum.

It's the latest in a string of protests by federal service workers. These workers currently make $8.25 per hour, which is D.C.'s minimum wage. But they say, they deserve better than poverty pay.

"You can't survive off of that. By the time you pay a bill or something, you're back to where you started," says Reggie Deck.

They're now urging President Obama to sign an executive order mandating what they call a "livable wage" of at least $12 per hour for federally-contracted service workers like them.

Employed by McDonald's USA and Restaurant Associates, which operate museum restaurants, these protesters accuse the federal government of being in bed with major corporations.

One called it "a slap in the face from Uncle Sam."

"This is not about the Smithsonian institution. This is about the federal government hiring contractors that don't pay a proper wage," a spokesperson said.

Smithsonian visitors and on-lookers had different opinions about the group's demands, some supporting the strikers and some saying a $4 raise is too much.

The group also submitted a petition letter to Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, calling for for higher wages and paid holidays that other workers receive. They pointed out that the Smithsonian makes $30 million in profits from business.

Thursday evening, the Smithsonian tweeted, “Some media reports are incorrect. FYI, there was no strike or walk-out by food service workers at the Smithsonian today.”

In another tweet, the Smithsonian said, “To clarify, we acknowledge the protest, but there was no work stoppage/strike… We can confirm that no one walked off the job; restaurants operated with full staffing.”

In response, protest organizers with the Good Jobs Nation campaign stood by their claims of a walk out, saying, “50 workers scheduled to work participated in the strike.”

In response to the group's strike and protest, McDonald's USA issued a statement. "We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald's restaurant. Both our company and franchised-owned restaurants work hard every day to treat McDonald's employees with dignity and respect. Employees are paid competitive wages and have access to a range of benefits to meet their individual needs....In addition, employees who want to go from crew to management can take advantage of a variety of training and professional development opportunities.