Working in the service industry makes you feel invisible sometimes. I spend my days working maintenance at McDonald’s, unloading trucks, keeping the stock room tidy and cleaning up after customers. At night, I work janitorial services as part of an unseen crew that cleans offices so they are ready for employees each morning.
My parents worked hard to help their children have better lives, and while I inherited their strong work ethic, even working two jobs it’s hard to make ends meet every month. I don’t expect recognition for what I do, but I’m not comfortable staying invisible any longer.
That’s why on Nov. 29, I went on strike and was arrested in front of the McDonald’s at 63rd and Troost. Those protests by thousands of workers across the country who are part of the Fight for $15 were about more than just pay; we were also calling for access to health care and racial equality. I grew up the shy middle son in a working-class family in Kansas City. My father worked as a janitor for Navajo Freight and my mother as a nurse’s aide at St. Luke’s Hospital. They toiled long hours and made enough to support our family. They dreamed of more for their children.
I graduated from high school in 1978, the same year my father passed away, a few months shy of retirement. Despite a lifetime of hard work providing for his family, my father never had the chance to enjoy a few years of rest or to see what kind of men his sons would grow to be.
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I had dreams of becoming an architect, but with college financially out of reach, I joined the Army and spent three years stationed in Augsburg, Germany.
After five years of service, I moved back to Kansas City to look for work. I started out with the morning shift at Wendy’s then picked up a gig working the swing shift at the Marriott. I used to joke that I never got to see the sun because I went to work before it came up and got off work long after it had gone down.
I didn’t mind. I was working these jobs until something better came along, something that paid more than the $7 an hour, something that would make my parents proud.
Thirty-two years later, I’m still working two jobs making $9 an hour. There have been times that I’ve had to give up my second job out of pure exhaustion, only to take one up again to be able to pay for a modest basement apartment, my bills and the essentials. When a medical emergency sent me to the emergency room earlier this year, I was hit with a $2,000 medical bill that depleted my modest savings and crushed my dreams of retiring any time soon. In the wake of that ER visit, I pay out of pocket every few months for medication to manage a prostate condition.
I often think of my dad and wonder what he’d think of me today. I’m 56 years old, I’ve been working hard my whole life, but I don’t have much to show for it. In those moments, I remind myself of what I work for during the rare moments when I’m off the clock. I joined the Fight for $15 three years ago after hearing about fast-food workers who went on strike, and called for $15 an hour and union rights. I’m not part of this movement just for myself. I work alongside men and women working hard just like my parents did to provide for their families, fighting for a better future for their children. Last week, I got arrested for them.
When a police officer picked me up off the cold, wet ground of the intersection that protestors had blocked for three hours, I knew I was no longer invisible. I forced myself to work through my fear and raise my voice with other workers to call on our leaders to fight for the working class, not against us. And, as I sat in jail that night, I thought of my father, wondering what he’d think of me today; I think he’d be proud.
Nathan Wash is a 56-year old McDonald’s worker, janitor, and activist for the Fight for $15.