At 6 a.m. last Thursday, a small group of people gathered at the Burger King on the corner of North Avenue and Hunt Street in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. They were fast food workers, home care workers, and those who support their cause. By the time the sun came up and North Avenue began to bustle an hour later, their numbers had doubled to about 40 people.
“We can’t survive on 7.25!” they chanted as cars zoomed by. When the light was red, they shouted at the cars, “Honk for 15!” Many drivers happily obliged.
This was the first in a series of actions held last Thursday in concert with workers across the country fighting for a minimum wage increase. The “Fight for 15” campaign, named after the goal of attaining a $15 minimum wage, is backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), community-based organizations like Atlanta Jobs With Justice, and many individual workers.
For several workers, this was not the first action they attended for wage increases.
“This is my third one,” said Armondo, a local Burger King employee. “My manager and I got into it a little bit because I’m supposed to be at work. But this is important, so I’m here.”
Keyona, who also works at Burger King, has been involved in other actions too. “This is like my fourth time. It’s all right—trying to get more money for us to live [comfortably],” she told me.
According to Armondo, the group of about 40 workers and organizers meets three times a month to plan actions like these. They are mostly fast food workers from a number of different establishments, including Taco Bell, Zaxby’s and Domino’s.
Thursday’s actions, however, included a number of home care workers as well. Marie has been a home care worker for 26 years and is also a fast food worker. She lives and works in a group home Friday through Sunday; works as a delivery driver for Domino’s pizza Monday through Thursday evenings; and watches children in her home Monday through Friday during the day.
Even with three jobs, Marie still has trouble making ends meet. “The rent was due on the first. It’s the third. I haven’t got it,” she said. “The car insurance is $200. I haven’t got it. The gas bill is $143. I haven’t got it.”
With low wages and few hours, the workers often need assistance to support themselves and their families. “I make just enough to pay rent,” Armondo said. “I have to ask for help from my family for other things.”
Some, like Yolanda, also a Burger King employee, qualify for some government assistance, but still need to ask family for help.“I don’t work enough hours for childcare [assistance], but I qualify for food stamps. If it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t even be able to work because I wouldn’t have anybody to watch my child.”
Keyona echoed similar challenges; “I get food stamps, but you can’t pay bills with food stamps.”
When people are unable to pay their bills, it doesn’t just affect them. “When you have to ask your 23-year-old daughter to help you pay your cell phone bill, that is humiliating,” Marie said.
Bringing in home care workers like Marie is part of a broader effort to make the Fight for 15 movement more inclusive and far-reaching. Rather than pushing for higher pay and better working conditions for a specific group, SEIU and its partners are fighting for changes to the minimum wage at the municipal, state and national level that would impact all workers. The Center for Community Change—where I am a Writing Fellow—is one of the organizations that is actively supporting Fight for 15 efforts nationwide.
So far, the campaign’s efforts appear to be paying off. Since the Fight for 15 started about two years ago, 13 states as well as 10 city and county governments have raised their minimum wages. Seattle raised its wage to a groundbreaking $15 an hour, and San Francisco residents will vote in November on whether their city will do the same. We certainly have not seen the end of the fast food worker strikes. The only question that remains is how many more states and municipalities will join the growing ranks of those that are doing the right thing and raising the minimum wage?
For Marie, taking part in the actions is important. “When I do this, I know it doesn’t stop with me,” she said. “We’re not just speaking up for ourselves; we’re speaking up for all the workers out there like us.”