When I’m standing over the hot grill at Burger King, I often think of my father. He was a postal clerk and a proud member of the American Postal Workers Union. We lived in a town with good schools. We visited the doctor regularly, and we never went to bed hungry. Once a month, he and other clerks played the letter carriers in a union softball game. I would buy an ice cream cone and sit in the bleachers with the other children, cheering my father on in the outfield.
That middle-class existence now seems like another life. I’m a college-educated 46-year-old who spent the last three decades at fast-food restaurants. At the Burger King just outside Kansas City, where I’ve worked for the last five years, I’m paid just $9.10 an hour.
Unlike my father, I get no health care or other benefits. Years ago, an infection caused my teeth to fall out and my whole face to swell. My wife of 16 years has never seen me smile with my teeth. She is my soulmate, but I can’t even show her the joy she brings me because I’m too ashamed of my mouth.
How did I get here? I graduated from college in 1995 as a drafting engineer and worked for five years in that field, joining the Burns & McDonnell engineering firm. But soon I needed training in 3-D technology to keep my job. With $43,000 in student loans, I couldn’t go back to school and I was laid off. I had a wife and two kids to support, so I took the only job available: fast food.
Like me, most of my co-workers aren’t teenagers. They’re adults supporting families. Despite working nearly 40 hours a week, many of my co-workers are homeless. Some sleep under a bridge near the store or crowd into tiny apartments with many others. We rely on food pantries and food stamps to feed our families. There are definitely no softball games.
Without health care, none of us can afford a doctor or a dentist. My tooth infection has turned my mouth into a big open wound, but all I can do is self-medicate with Tylenol.
Two years ago, I joined the Fight for $15, the movement to raise pay to $15 an hour and win union rights. Since 2012, we’ve won raises for 22 million underpaid workers nationwide.
In Kansas City we’ve been speaking out and going on strike, and our legislators and the voters responded. Two years ago, the City Council voted to raise Kansas City’s minimum wage to $13 an hour, and earlier this month, voters went a step further, overwhelmingly approving a ballot measure calling for a floor of $15 an hour.
But politicians in Jefferson City backed by wealthy corporations are blocking our raise. Instead of looking out for underpaid workers, Gov. Eric Greitens and lawmakers are siding with lobbyists fighting to keep our pay as low as possible.
Workers like me can’t depend on politicians to raise our pay and improve working conditions. This Labor Day, we are fighting back with nationwide strikes to demand $15 and union rights. We know that if we want a better life — food, clothes, shelter, dental insurance and simple pleasures like a softball game — we need a union standing behind us.
And so, this Labor Day I won’t continue to dream longingly of my father’s life; I will fight to make it my own.
Bill Thompson of Kansas City is a 46-year-old father and Burger King worker.