In the nearly 100 degree heat this weekend, I joined thousands of fast-food and other underpaid workers in Richmond, VA—the capital of the former Confederacy— to lead the first-ever Fight for $15 National Convention.
It wasn’t a typical convention like you see on TV: We didn’t endorse any candidates, and there weren’t speeches from politicians.
Instead, we came together in Richmond to highlight the racist policies that are holding back workers of color nationwide, and to mobilize the 64 million Americans paid less than $15/hour ahead of the 2016 election.
Together, we’re going to make sure that this is an election where candidates at all levels hear the demands of working people loud and clear.
For the past three years I’ve worked as a cook at KFC in Birmingham, Alabama. After more than three years in the fast-food industry, I’m still paid the minimum wage of $7.25/hour, which comes out to about $10,000 every year.
I started working full time at the age of 20 to help support my mother and two siblings. Even though I work hard and have gained skills in the kitchen, my wages have not budged. If it weren’t for public assistance to help cover the cost of housing, I would end up homeless.
When I heard about fast-food workers across the country going on strike to demand $15/hour and union rights, I realized I wasn’t alone, and that other people struggling like me were speaking out for change. I went on strike for the first time last year, and since then I’ve brought coworkers and neighbors to countless protests in my community to demand higher pay and the right to a union.
Earlier this year, we finally started to make progress in our fight when the Birmingham City Council approved a measure in February to raise our city’s minimum wage to $10.10/hour. It wasn’t the $15/hour we needed, but it was a start, and I began to dream of a life where the thought of buying dinner or paying the electricity bill didn’t cause panic. I even imagined finally being able to go to college to become a computer technician.
But the feeling of hope didn’t last long. Just two days after our city passed the wage increase, state lawmakers in Montgomery voted to take it away. In many ways it felt like the latest chapter in the racist history of states like Alabama: A predominantly white legislature used its power to override the decision of an overwhelmingly black city council, representing a city that is 74 percent African American. The raises won by 40,000 hard-working Birmingham cooks, cashiers, home care workers and janitors evaporated with the stroke of a pen.
Workers in Birmingham are not alone. In the last year, predominantly black workforces in Kansas City and St. Louis also had raises stolen from them by Missouri’s majority white state legislature. And while America’s racist past continues to hold back workers of color, today low-wage jobs are forcing workers all across the economy to scrape by: nearly half of America’s workers are now paid less than $15/hour.
Underpaid workers across the country traveled to Richmond for the Fight for $15 Convention this weekend because now is our time to chart a new course ahead of the 2016 election. People who work at McDonald’s were there. Home care workers were there. So were airport baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, truck drivers, retail workers, farmers, adjunct college professors, early childhood teachers, and people who work in factories and retail stores.
We won’t stop until everyone has the right to earn at least $15 and the freedom to form unions. That’s the only way we’ll get an economy that works for everyone.