When the Fight for $15 began six years ago, there was no charismatic politician championing our cause, no benevolent CEO ushering in our demand. It was just fast-food cooks and cashiers, folks working 40-plus hours a week and still just scraping by.
In the early days, when I led my fellow fast-food workers in Kansas City to walk off the job demanding $15 an hour, few took us seriously. Earlier this month, I stood not on the strike line, but in the halls of Congress, testifying before the scores and scores of members who are calling for a $15 federal minimum wage.
Now that Congress has finally heeded workers’ demands, we must remember where $15 came from. The Raise the Wage Act isn’t about political theater or proving a point. It’s about the millions of Americans who work hard every day and still struggle to keep the lights on.
The economy is not working for the majority of people, and by raising the minimum wage to $15, we can start to change that.
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I work at McDonald’s. I’ve been working fast-food jobs since I was 16 years old — 22 years total. With over two decades of experience, I’m still paid just a few dollars more per hour than I was paid 10 years ago. The federal minimum wage was last increased 10 years ago, in 2009.
For me, raising the minimum wage is not a matter of pride or politics. It’s a matter of survival. Even working 40 hours a week — and at times working two fast-food jobs at once — I still rely on food stamps to feed my three teenage daughters. Paying the bills is a challenge. Skipping meals is sometimes necessary.
During one especially tough period, my fiancée, our three daughters and I lived and slept in a van outside the Burger King where I worked. Everything we owned was packed in the back of the van, and the girls tucked themselves under coats to stay warm.
Fifteen dollars an hour would be life-changing for people like me. My family would be spared from the most desperate of conditions. We wouldn’t have to worry as much about keeping the lights and heat on. My girls would have food, clothes, school supplies.
When you’re earning $7.25 an hour, you can work hard — work tirelessly — and still be left with impossible decisions: transportation or medicine, rent or dinner, heat or shoes.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would help to curb these types of impossible predicaments. It would pave the way to a world in which your zip code and the color of your skin no longer determine how likely it is that you live in poverty.
I know this type of change is possible because I’ve already started to see it. I’ve been on the front lines of the enormous change that workers can bring when they stick together for a voice on the job.
When the original 200 fast-food workers in New York City first walked off the job in 2012, nobody gave them a shot. Fifteen dollars an hour was dismissed as outrageous. People underestimated the power of workers who stick together — but our demand spread like wildfire. Just under seven years later, one-fifth of the country is covered by a $15 minimum wage.
Fifteen is the law of the land in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, St. Paul, California, New York, Massachusetts — and as of this month, New Jersey. Major private sector employers such as Facebook, Target and Amazon committed to raising their minimum wages to $15 an hour.
All told, more than 11 million workers are on the path to $15, and 22 million workers have won more than $68 billion in raises as a direct result of the campaign.
The national movement toward $15 has shown us that politicians don’t lead — workers do. By joining together and going on strike, we changed the politics around wages in this country and changed what is possible.
As Congress continues to debate a $15 minimum wage, politicians and the public alike need to look past the politics and remember the real reason for this bill: Fellow workers who demanded $15 an hour because it’s the bare minimum needed to support yourself and your family in this country.
The federal minimum wage should help lift communities, not drag them down. It’s not a symbol, it’s not a wedge issue. It’s people’s livelihoods.
Terrence Wise is a McDonald's worker in Kansas City and a leader in Stand Up KC, part of the movement fighting for $15 and a union.