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Contract Workers at Smithsonian Protest Low Wages

by Jillian Steinhauer on July 12, 2013

Workers protesting at the Smithsonian yesterday (via Good Jobs Nation on Twitter)

Workers protesting at the Smithsonian yesterday (via Good Jobs Nation on Twitter)

Some 50 food service workers at the Smithsonian museums went on strike yesterday, in protest of their less-than-livable wages.

An advocacy group called Good Jobs Nation organized the protest, which involved more than 100 overall attendees and began with a press conference and “street-theater sketch,” according to the Washington Post, before moving on to a march and speak-out. For the theatrical bit, people dressed up as Ronald McDonald, Walmart, and Uncle Sam got into bed together to call out the close relationships between private corporations and the federal government. The Huffington Post describes the scene:

Strikers dragged a mattress into the middle of the street as people dressed as Uncle Sam, Walmart and Ronald McDonald cuddled in bed together with a large fake check for $1 million, made out to “Federal Contractor CEO.”

The crowd booed as Inocencio Quinones, a protester who was dressed as Uncle Sam complete with a white, curly wig, handed a member of the crowd a check for $8.25. It was paid to the order of “Federally Contracted Worker.”

Indeed, the workers who went on strike are not actually employed by the US government; they work for companies contracted by the government to sell food and provide other services at the Air and Space Museum and the American History Museum. As the Post explains, the low-wage workers represented by Good Jobs Nation perform tasks “that range from greeting visitors and selling memorabilia at the Smithsonian museums to driving trucks that haul federal loads and making military uniforms.” Good Jobs has organized three other demonstrations in Washington, DC since May and filed a complaint with the labor department about companies that operate in partnership with the federal government not paying their workers minimum wage.

One of the most interesting parts of yesterday’s strike, however, was the Smithsonian’s attempt to spin it. A tweet from the organization’s official Twitter account stated yesterday afternoon:

That was quickly countered by Good Jobs Nation, who responded with this:

The Smithsonian went on to clarify in further tweets that “we acknowledge the protest, but there was no work stoppage/strike,” and “We can confirm that no one walked off the job; restaurants operated with full staffing.”

Journalist Josh Eidelson followed up and spoke to someone at the Smithsonian today about the institution’s claims, tweeting the results:

Meanwhile, Good Jobs Nation insists that “50 workers scheduled to work participated in the strike.”

So it sounds like there was no walk-out during working hours and the restaurants either operated with less than full staff or brought in replacements, but there were workers who failed to show up for their shifts. As the Smithsonian insists, that may not quite qualify as a strike, at least according to Merriam-Webster, which defines “strike” as “a work stoppage by a body of workers to enforce compliance with demands made on an employer.”

But obviously the argument is just an obnoxious way of trying to divert attention from the real issue, which is that people working at federal museums are being paid less than a living wage. Semantics games and nitpicking won’t change that — and neither, apparently, will Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, who, in the video below, told protesting workers that “You guys really need to talk to your employers.” Yes, Clough, I’m sure McDonald’s will be very receptive.

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