WASHINGTON - Repeating a win he first gained several weeks ago, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and the Congressional Progressive Caucus tacked a ban on federal contracts to firms that engage in wage theft onto yet another money bill. But this was a big one: The $500 billion-plus Defense Department spending plan for the year starting Oct. 1.
If Ellison's move survives the rest of the congressional gauntlet, it could aid tens of thousands of fast food workers at commissaries and in mini-malls on defense bases who now see their employers - McDonald's, KFC, Domino's Pizza and the like - underpay them.
Labor-backed Good Jobs Nation has been in the forefront of the drive to raise fast food workers' wages, especially at federal sites. The workers also demand decent benefits, regular hours and the right to organize without employer interference.
The 212-204 vote saw virtually every House Democrat and a handful of Republicans back the workers, except those few Democrats who were absent due to illness. The "no" votes came from the GOP. Ellison's prior anti-wage-theft amendment, on the spending bill for the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments, passed by voice vote.
Like his prior anti-wage-theft move, Ellison's ban on contractor wage theft at DOD bars the agency from using money for contractors whose own filings show they broke the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal minimum wage law. Ellison, citing federal data, told his colleagues on June 19 that federal contractors - many of them in fast-food - commit 32 percent of all wage theft violations the Labor Department discovers.
"This is very straightforward," Ellison said. "What it says is that, if there is a federal contractor found to engage in wage theft, they may not benefit from this" money bill.
"There are many contractors who work for the Department of Defense who have employees that cook the meals for our troops, wash their uniforms, do all manner of many, many important tasks to keep fighting men and women in a position to serve.
"And they sometimes, the federal contractors who serve the government do not pay these workers," he added. Citing an Economic Policy Institute investigation, Ellison said wage theft by federal contractors costs the average worker at their firms "a stunning $2,634 per year in unpaid wages, representing 15 percent of their earned income.
"I think Democrats and Republicans can agree that if you...want to do business with the United States, you should be fair to your workers. This doesn't go out and look and we are not asking anyone to make any judgments. We are talking about people who have been found to engage in wage theft already...Don't we want to incentivize good contractors and discourage bad ones? One way we can do that is say, if you don't treat your workers right, we are going to find some contractors who will."
Photo: Rep. Ellison website.