“I never used to understand my father,” Fermin said into the microphone. “He was always angry, cold, you know? It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized why. He was always working and it was killing him.” He looked around the full room at Doc Maynard’s Bar and gripped the microphone.
“He worked jobs like I do,” he said. “They don’t pay anything, barely anything and you have to work all the time just to make ends meet. It’s not right and we have to do something about it. I don’t want to turn out like he was in my childhood always tired, never smiling. I do want a family someday, but I can’t do that to them.”
Fermin works at a fast food company. He is paid poverty wages and lives in a small apartment. He has had to cut all his living expenses to the bone as his job pays him so little. He was sharing his story to a room full of community members who had all come out to show their support for workers in the crowded, darkened stage room of Doc Maynard’s, a downtown Seattle bar and tourist attraction.
“I want to be able to save money, go see a movie once in a while,” he said. “Sometimes I have to skip meals. How am I supposed to think about going back to school or anything like that? I just want to make enough to live the way I want to live.”
Workers across the country are starting to stand up. A few months ago, fast food workers from New York City walked off the job in a first of its kind one day strike. The facts are that 7 out of the 10 fastest growing jobs in the United States are low wage jobs.
There is no reason why these jobs need to pay so little or have such unpredictable and changeable hours.
It isn’t an isolated case that workers are standing up. The LA Times article “Fast-food workers walk out in N.Y. amid rising U.S. labor unrest” said:
“Those actions (New York Fast Food Strikes) follow a period of relative quiet on the labor front, broken by the Chicago teacher’s strike earlier this year and a strike by employees of Hostess Brands….more walkouts are likely to come.”
Sarah Jaffe, an independent journalist, was the MC for the event. She has written extensively about labor issues, workers’ rights and the Occupy Movement. She had also just written about the New York strike calling it “The McJobs Strike Back.” She welcomed the audience to the event and introduced the other speakers.
“I’ve never been a part of something like this,” she said standing on the stage. “But, I’m inspired by these workers who are telling it like it is. There’s something going on in this country and workers are making it happen. Let’s hear from them now.”
The other workers shared their stores while sitting on an elevated stage with microphones pinned to their shirts or blouses. They were from different jobs and different workplaces, but they all had something in common. They were taking action to change their workplaces for the better. They all wanted better wages and better treatment.
“I’m getting married,” Spencer said holding the microphone in a firm grip and looking out at the audience. “I don’t know how we are going to make it because I am paid such low wages. We can’t even think of starting a family. We wouldn’t be able to afford it. That’s why I’m doing something about it. My co-workers and I have formed a Union. We’re standing up together.”
Spencer works for a low wage airport contractor at Sea-Tac Airport. He handles the baggage driving the trucks and loading and unloading the luggage of Alaska Airlines’ passengers. It is fast paced; harried and thankless work and for all their efforts they are paid poverty wages.
“We marched on our managers,” Spencer said. “Too many of us have been working scared—scared for our safety, scared of our bills, scared of saying anything. Not anymore. We need better wages and a safer workplace. And we are going to make it happen.”
Pancho, speaking through a translator, talked about his work in a fast food restaurant. He has been working at the same location doing the same work for nearly three years and he hasn’t seen his wages go up except when minimum wage has.
“I work hard,” he said becoming more animated as he clutched the microphone. “I’m taking care of my family back in Mexico and this pay; it just doesn’t. I have two daughters and I’m worried about them.”
Pancho talked about how when he first got hired at the job the managers told him that if he increased his skills and undertook on the job training they would increase his wages. He has learned new skills, mastering the machines, learning food prep skills and even taking more responsibility at work across different job types. His pay hasn’t risen.
“I learned all the things they wanted me to learn,” he said. “I learned to cook, to clean, to work the machines. I do the work of two people and I still make minimum wage.”
He paused to let the translator catch up.
“I’ve been on the job for three years,” he said. “This industry just cuts corners. They don’t hire enough people; they don’t pay enough wages and I have to do something about it.”
Wilton is a fast food worker from New York. He took place in the historic fast food worker strike a month before. He joined hundreds of other workers taking their message to the street and he came out to Seattle to give encouragement to workers who are fed up with low wages and poor treatment.
“I’m a cook,” he said. “I’m a good cook. People say I’m the best one there. But, I can’t survive on the paychecks they give me. I went on strike for my family. I deserve better pay—a living wage.”
Wilton looked around the stage.
“I work seven days a week,” he said. “I have to just to make enough to make it, but it still is not enough. I don’t get to see my family or hug my children. I want a living wage so that I don’t have to work seven days a week. That’s why I went on strike. That’s why I’m out here. Thank you.”
A recent study from the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank found that minimum wage increases raise incomes and increase consumer spending. The authors examine 23 years of household spending data and find that for every dollar increase for a minimum wage worker results in $2,800 in new consumer spending by his or her household over the following year.
When workers get paid more they are much more likely to turn around and put that money back into the community, lifting up local businesses and supporting other jobs.
It just makes sense.
Brittany took a deep breath and grabbed the microphone.
“I’m Brittany,” she said. “I work at Walmart. I’m a single mom and I take care of my two year old son. Because of Walmart’s pay and hours I’m still living at home. I want to move on.”
She paused looking around the room. The audience clapped encouraging her to continue.
“I used to get decent hours,” she said. “I mean the pay was always bad, but the hours were decent. But, they’ve been cutting hours so much and trying to make excuses. They say that sales are down, but it’s not true. Stop making excuses Walmart. You just don’t want to pay us a decent wage.”
She shook her head.
“They keep cutting hours and then hire people,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense, ya know? So I joined OUR Walmart, a group of associates who are working together to make Walmart pay us a decent wage and give us enough hours.”
Brittany stopped and smiled.
“I want to be a kindergarten teacher someday,” she said. “I just want decent pay and pretty good hours so I can make those plans come true. I don’t want to be rich or anything, I just want enough so I can take the next step.”