I'm a lifelong resident of Flint, Michigan, and a lifelong fast-food worker. That means my tap water is toxic, and my paycheck is too small to afford a safe alternative.
It's a brutal one-two punch, but this week - as presidential candidates from both parties come to Michigan ahead of our state's primary - people in Flint are hitting back.
On Thursday, my coworkers and I walked off the job to demand $15/hour and union rights, and I joined hundreds of other underpaid workers to rally outside the GOP presidential debate in Detroit that evening to demand that the candidates stand with the nearly 2 million workers in our state who are paid less than $15/hour. On Sunday, hundreds of workers fighting for $15/hour and union rights will also protest outside the Democratic debate in Flint, because candidates from both parties need to hear our cry for higher pay, union rights, and racial justice.
We're going on strike and rallying outside the presidential debates because the politicians who are failing the people of Flint are too similar to the billion dollar companies like Yum!, which owns Taco Bell and pays its CEO more than 37 million a year while locking us workers in poverty. Both are abusing their power, and both have to be held accountable.
"My family's water wouldn't have been poisoned if we lived in Beverly Hills, or Auburn Hills, for that matter."
When I started at Taco Bell 18 years ago, I made $3.35 an hour. Today I make $8.50 an hour, which is Michigan's minimum wage. I've survived this long only by learning to stretch my dollars as far as they'll go - like cooking large batches of food at once to ration throughout a week. I buy the cheapest groceries I can, looking for discount spaghetti that will fill me, but costs under a dollar. I've learned the bus schedule by heart and take it everywhere I go.
Now I'm forced to spend $30 extra on bottled water a week, and my paycheck feels thinner than ever. And far worse, I have to look my young nieces and nephews in the eye to explain that politicians allowed them to get poisoned because of the color of their skin. Make no mistake: my family's water wouldn't have been poisoned if we lived in Beverly Hills, or Auburn Hills, for that matter.
It's easy to feel defeated, but by taking a risk and going on strike for $15/hour and union rights, I feel hope that we can win real change, and that the next generation of Flint residents may have a real shot at a better life. Fast-food workers in Flint were among the first cities to join the Fight for $15 back in July 2013, and by taking action, we've helped spark a movement that has spread to more than 270 cities and has made the urgent need to raise pay a top issue in the 2016 run for the White House.
"There are too many workers just like me, and whether its access to clean water or access to food, we are being deprived of the American dream."
It's not just the residents of Flint who have been forgotten. All over the country, billion-dollar fast-food companies pay workers so little that turning to food stamps is the only way to survive. These are jobs where learning to ask friends or family for extra cash to pay your electricity bill practically comes with the apron they hand you when you start on the grill. And most workers earning below $15 per hour are women and people of color. More than half of African-American workers and close to 60% of Latino workers across the country are paid less than $15.
What happened in my community is heartbreaking, but this goes beyond Flint. Across the country there are too many workers just like me, and whether its access to clean water or access to food, we are being deprived of the American dream.
We need to win real change on the job, and at the ballot box, and that's why underpaid workers all across the country are following presidential hopefuls everywhere they go to tell them: if you hear our struggles, you can have our vote. In addition to going on strike and marching on the debates, we'll be turning out to the ballot box with bands of friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and anyone we can to support the candidate who promises to support us.
This election cycle, the 64 million workers across the country who are paid under $15 an hour are hitting back. We're letting politicians know that no matter the color of our skin or the size of our paycheck, we refuse to be left behind any longer.
Tyrone Stitt is a Taco Bell worker from Flint, Mich.