2016 will be a year of many firsts for me.
I went on strike for the first time this past Sunday (Jan.17), ahead of the Democratic presidential debate. At 57 years old, I will be voting for the first time ever here in Charleston, South Carolina. And it’s the first year I believe my voice matters.
I started working in fast food when I was about 20 years old. At the time I was a young mother and I had to support my family, so I took a job that would allow me to work with people. I thought that after I put in years of good work, I would earn respect and move up the ladder to a point where I could afford the simple things, like a vacation with my children.
Twenty-five years later, I’m still in fast food. Today, I still make barely above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour at McDonald’s.
I have worked hard for decades and raised four beautiful children. But instead of thinking about retirement, I wonder if I will be able to keep a roof over my head. I have lost my home three separate times because I could not afford increases in rent. I lost my car because I could not keep up with payments, and I worry about not having enough at the end of the week for bus fare required to get me to and from work. It is outrageous that so many of us work for multi-billion dollars companies like McDonald’s, and yet we have nothing to show for it.
Before I found the “Fight for $15” movement, I had almost run out of hope. Now I realize I am not alone. Almost half of American workers—that’s millions and millions of people like me—make less than $15 an hour, and this year we are coming together to make a change.
I first heard about the Fight for $15 movement a couple of months ago, when I saw on the news that some cities in California were raising wages to $15 an hour because workers spoke out. Just recently, after years of going on strike, workers in New York won $15 for their state. I realized if they could win in New York, we could win right here in Charleston.
That’s why last Sunday was a historic day of firsts for me. I went on strike for the first time to demand that McDonald’s and every other fast-food company raise pay to $15 and support union rights.
I then marched to the Democratic presidential debate in Charleston to tell the candidates running for president that if you want my vote—and the vote of the millions of workers like me who keep this country running—stand on the right side of history. With all of us shoulder to shoulder, even the lobbying and campaign donations of the biggest, most powerful corporations we work for won’t be able to drown us out.
The Republicans will hear from us soon, too. In fact, we have a message for all the candidates this year: If you push for the pay and workplace protections we deserve, we’ll stand with you.
This weekend we also honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who knew that economic and social justice could not be separated. King was killed in Memphis while supporting sanitation workers striking for fair wages and full-time work. Over the years, many Americans have marched and even lost their lives in the pursuit of economic and political freedom. I’m an African American woman who has been silent for too long. But this weekend my voice was heard loud and clear in downtown Charleston. The Republican candidates already had to answer to our calls for $15 an hour at the Milwaukee debate in November. And all candidates will continue to hear the concerns of workers across the city—and the country—this election season.
Even after all of these years and through all the setbacks, I still believe in the American Dream. I taught my children to believe that in this country, hard work is rewarded. And if you try hard and live honestly, you should be able to make it. This year I hope I’ll also be able to teach them that their opinions deserve to be heard.
It’s time for a change. If our country’s leaders want the votes of millions of Americans like me, they’ll have to come and get it. I hope you will join us.