It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
On April 14, tens of thousands of underpaid workers rallied in 300 locations worldwide. Hailing from different fields including fast-food, home care, child care, airports and higher education, they united to demand a minimum wage of $15 per hour and the right to form a union.
This movement, known as Fight for Fifteen, launched in 2013 and has won minimum wage increases by city and state governments, as well as private employers, across the United States. Most recently, state lawmakers in New York and California hiked their minimum wages to $15, and the largest employer in Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, announced it would pay workers $15 an hour.
These gains have met with backlash. Last year in Birmingham, Alabama, city council members voted to raise the municipal minimum wage to $10.10. In February, the Alabama state legislature voided that victory with a law that prohibits local governments from setting their own minimum wage. A slew of states have passed similar measures since the Fight For Fifteen campaign took off. There are now nineteen states that preempt local minimum wage ordinances.
Georgia was one of the first states to pass preemptive legislation back in 2004, after Atlanta's mayor signed off on a living wage ordinance. The state's minimum wage is currently $5.15––lower than the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25.
Atlanta's low-wage workers have shown up in force as a group called ATL Raise Up, which launched shortly after the Fight For Fifteen campaign started. This year, they got as far as a state Senate hearing for a bill that would roll back Georgia's preemption law. That bill didn't pass this time, but that hasn't slowed ATL Raise Up. On April 14, Atlanta's fast-food and homecare workers went on strike. These are some of their stories.
"I was supposed to be a Medical Assistant (MA) when I moved down here [from New York. The company that hired me] changed the job, they said it was filled and I had to be a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA.) So it was kind of like I was bamboozled because I thought I was going to be an MA but I'm a CNA. That's fifteen or sixteen dollars per hour compared to ten. It's very hard. I still live in my parents' home. And I went to college for something else that I didn't get, so why did I go to college? And now I need to pay my student loans."
"What brought me out today is that $7.25 is not enough. That's what I make at Burger King. I've been there a little over two years, and they told me when they hired me that the more I learned the more I'd make. Now they got me training and I still haven't got a raise. Less than getting a raise for what I learned, I haven't got a raise for learning somebody else what they know. Fifteen and a union is what brought me out because I think we will win. I'd be able to pay my bills and have bus fare back and forth to work. It still is not enough to live off of, but it would be much, much better than $7.25. See, I've been diagnosed with high blood pressure. I have six different medications I have to take, which is very expensive and I can't afford any of it. With fifteen dollars and a union I could afford my medication."
"I am a single mother. I would love to own a house one day but I don't see it happening in the field that I work. I would love to go back to school but I don't see being able to pay for student loans working where I work. I could work other places but I'll still only get paid ten dollars or nine dollars. So it's real hard. It's hard for me to live. I have one daughter, she's fourteen. I'm like, "Don't have this type of job, have a career." If you don't have a career or a lot of family support systems you won't go too far. Fifteen an hour would change a little bit. I can't say it would change everything, but I would probably be able to put my daughter in better programs so she can be somebody important. I could hopefully buy a house. If I owned my own home I wouldn't have to keep renting or using Section 8. I think it would help a lot."
"They got me on the schedule for 80 hours in two weeks, which sounds good, you'd think at $7.25 I'd be pulling in a five or six hundred dollar check every two weeks. But they send you home early. I end up working about 30 hours in two weeks, even though I blocked off 80 hours. So now my time is tied up here because I think I'm going to work here all day and I don't know what days I'm going to get sent home early. So it would be hard for me to find another job that I can work along with this.
I have an apartment now where I only have to pay $450 a month, but I can't even afford that by myself. I have a roommate in a studio. I'm working and plus I have school on my hands. I'm a major in criminal justice, I go to Strayer University. So I'm fighting not just for me but for everybody. I know there are people out there in worse predicaments than me, and in the same predicament as me. So I get out here and give it my all as if I really want the minimum wage to go up because I really do. [My managers] got mad and let me go when they heard I was going on strike. They told me to go home."
"I've been working at Wendy's for 13 years. My fight for fifteen is because it's not enough to take care of my family. I have ten kids, five girls, five boys. I can't make ends meet. I do all this overtime and they cut my check. I just lost my apartment because you got to make three times the rent. And they're either shortening my hours, shortening my check, and they don't want to pay me for all the hard work I've done. I'm tired of it. Enough is enough. These franchise corporations have been stealing from their employees for years and it's not fair. Let's get this fifteen."
"I've been working in healthcare since 1997 and I've gotten a twenty-five cent raise in all that time. We need a union so that we can have someone to fight for us, for our rights, for equal opportunity to be able to grow within a company. There's no growth. We don't have benefits. We need a union, we need a raise and we need to be able to move forward just like the other industries. In home healthcare, it's stagnant. We stay in it because of the individuals we support. If we just up and leave these individuals, they are fragile, some of them have mental health issues. You don't want to make changes that confuse them. We stay with them until they pass on.
I had a client I took care of for fifteen years and she passed. You're not only their caregivers, you support their families. The lady I took care of, she was quadriplegic and blind. She used a wheelchair and so you had to take her everywhere she needed to go. You have to help them stay with the times, when they go out you want them to look nice, to dress nice. If you weren't there to do those things for them, then who would do it? We stay in it for that, but we deserve to be paid a good wage. That's why I'm here."