Living on Poverty Wages Means Living on a Razor’s Edge
We spoke with Fight for $15 activist Terrence Wise, who recently testified before the Senate Budget Committee, about life on low wages, the rhythms of collective protest, and why the Biden administration will pay a price if it abandons its pledge to support the movement's central demand of a $15 minimum wage.
- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Congress has passed a wide-ranging COVID-19 relief package, but one thing that is not included in the bill is an increase of the federal minimum wage. The current minimum is $7.25 an hour, and the last increase was in 2009.
One of the key sources of pressure to raise the wage has been the Fight for $15, which is a project backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) aiming to raise wages and unionize fast-food workers. The movement began in 2012, and while it has won $15 minimum wages in several cities and states, its goal for a national $15 minimum remains unmet, and the prospect of unionizing the fast-food industry is still daunting.
As Congress was considering including a $15 minimum wage in the relief bill, Senate Budget Committee chairman Bernie Sanders held a hearing on wages. He invited CEOs — most of whom declined — and workers to testify before the committee. One person who accepted Sanders’s invitation was Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker, father of three, and leader in the Fight for $15. Wise told the committee of his childhood as the son of a fast-food worker: the money wasn’t enough to sustain the family, so he left high school to work full time in fast-food himself. He is still doing so, and still not making enough to get by. Even with his fiancé’s income as a home health care aide, his family was recently evicted, leaving them homeless during the pandemic.
Despite his testimony, and the countless stories of people just like him, the minimum wage remains $7.25. Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Wise about the Fight for $15, how to move workers into collective action, and what it was like when a small-business owner who testified against a $15 minimum wage at the Senate Budget Committee hearing tried to offer him a job.
Congress has so far failed to raise the federal minimum wage to $15. What do you think about how that process has transpired?
I reflect on how we got to the point where we’re discussing a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill. Eight years ago, when the Fight for $15 got started, people would laugh at you if you proposed that. This was during the Obama administration, when we had a “friendly” administration in office. So to even be at the point where we can feel the disappointment still gives me hope: we started from the bottom and now we’re here. The working class is going to keep fighting; we knew it wasn’t going to be easy when we started.
This isn’t the first setback that I’ve seen in the life of the movement either. We’ve fought, organized, and struck to nearly double the minimum wage here in my hometown, Kansas City. We won a landslide vote here at City Hall — it was twelve to one — to nearly double the minimum wage, only to see legislation passed in our state capitol, Jefferson City, to take it away. Setbacks just motivate us to fight harder, to keep pushing until we get $15.
You mentioned that despite not yet having $15, there’s been progress: localities have passed $15 minimums, and the idea no longer gets you laughed out of a room. What explains that progress, and how will $15 an hour be won?
It’s important to remember that it’s not only a fight for $15, but for a union too. When we look at labor organizing in the past, or even when we look at the Civil Rights Movement or the women’s movement, the Fight for $15 is a new model of organization. We’ve got some of the lowest-paid workers in the country stepping up and sparking something. Since the Fight for $15 ignited, we’ve seen protests on historic levels across the country: student walkouts, teachers on wildcat strikes — where they don’t even have the legal ability to go on strike — and so on. The working class is awakening as a whole. We rarely toot our own horn, but I think that’s because of fast-food workers walking off the job in New York City in 2012.
We know that we can’t wait on our employers or folks that we elect into office to make change and hear our voices, but that we have to take action. That’s what we’ve seen over the last eight years, after the Obama administration, and even when we had the Trump administration, which we know wasn’t worker friendly. We were still able to fight for $15, flip seats that have never been flipped before across the country, and we’ve still been able to make progress even when it didn’t look good for the working class.
You mentioned it’s not just a fight for $15 an hour, but for a union as well. That often gets glossed over, especially in recent months with so much focus on the federal minimum wage. There’s been progress toward $15, but very little progress toward unions for fast-food workers.
That’s the most needed part. We need a union. You can’t pay us a living wage but then some of my coworkers are sexually harassed or discriminated against at work; or we’re faced with a lack of protection at work, no voice at work, and a lack of democracy at work. It’s one thing to make a living wage but still not have the protections of a union: health care, paid sick leave, and paid time off.
McDonald’s? We’ve said it from day one: not only do they not have to wait on legislation to give us $15, they can give us a seat at the table today, they can. We’re ready today. I’m off today, and if I got the call, we could sit at the table today, not only to negotiate our wages, but life in the workplace too. We have to act like a union before we win a union. We’ve won paid sick days off. We’ve won protective gear. So we’ve been acting like a union. But it’s not only time for McDonald’s to give us a seat at the table, it’s also our elected leaders’ job to create an environment where we can create unions. They play a role in this as well.
What can elected officials do toward that end?
We talk about trickle-down economics, tax breaks for big corporations that are supposed to trickle down to the worker somehow. We’ve seen companies given incentives to do all types of things, but when it’s a discussion about doing what is right for your workers, we need to talk about penalizing corporations for not doing that, for not giving us a seat at the table, for not paying a living wage. We’ve seen our elected leaders act in favor of major corporations. It’s time for them to start doing what’s right for their constituents.
What has working through the pandemic been like, and what have you and your coworkers done to improve the conditions on the job?
We’ve been fighting hard for $15 and a union, but early on in the pandemic, the fight was about life and death. We had to organize, not only locally but across the country, to win masks, sneeze guards, gloves. We were just demanding personal protective equipment (PPE) in our shops. Then there were the issues of the new mental aspect of being called an “essential worker,” being called a “hero,” and being treated like a second-class citizen: not having a living wage, paid sick leave, hazard pay, or any of those things. We forced McDonald’s to start offering paid sick days, and Wendy’s workers delivered petitions and demands and won protective equipment and sneeze guards. We’ve seen our work bear fruit.
The Fight for $15 is a national campaign, there have been walkouts and so on. But for you, in your store, as a leader, how do these organizing conversations go? How do you move people into actions when they feel so beaten down?
The key word is agitation. When you think about the working class as a whole — whether you work at McDonald’s, in a hospital, as a teacher, whatever — you do it for your family. And you think about someone hurting your kids, taking money out of your pocket, showing a lack of remorse toward your family. That’s what these corporations do, and they do it in plain sight. They do it by refusing to give health care or a living wage. They create the environment for my family, which has been homeless even during the pandemic.
It’s not the working class’s fault: we work forty hours a week, some of us multiple jobs. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do as American citizens. If it’s not a failure on our part, it has to be on the folks who sign our paychecks, and the folks we put into office.
In my workplace, that’s where it starts. We look around, we see the money coming in — I count it every night. And we talk. We ask, “Do you think McDonald’s can afford to give us gloves, sneeze guards?” You’re damn right they can. They can afford to give us health care and paid sick leave. Our store makes more than $1 million. So at my shop, we know damn well they can do better for us.
So what do we have to do? If we sit and be quiet, nothing will happen. If we keep coming to work and clocking in, nothing will change. So we have to be united. There is no solution for an individual to this problem that doesn’t require collective action. That’s how you win hazard pay and protective equipment. You have to ask questions, agitate, and listen.
You mentioned during the recent Senate Budget Committee hearing that you’d recently been homeless, even with your job and your fiancé’s work as a home health care aide. The two incomes weren’t enough to stay on top of rent.
I’m a full-time McDonald’s worker, and she’s a certified nursing assistant, taking care of some of the most vulnerable citizens on the planet. My mom told me that if you work hard, are a law-abiding citizen, then everything will work out. That’s the American way. But we’ve done that. Folks hear that my family has been homeless and they think, “Hold on, something is wrong here. These folks are working full time. They must be on drugs, they must be making bad decisions.” No, we’re not. We want what’s best for our three little girls. We work hard and we try to provide for our family. It’s not a failure of ours, it’s these low wages.
At the beginning of the pandemic, they shut down our kids’ school, and my daughters were sick — thank God it wasn’t COVID-19 — but my fiancé missed days of work because of sickness, and I missed a few days helping take care of the family. But when you miss a few days, there goes rent, there goes the gas bill, there goes the car payment. You don’t have paid sick leave or paid time off, so every day, every hour missed from work is truly felt. You’re trying to juggle bills, pay half of rent here, make a promissory note there, and you fall in a tumble. Eventually, we faced eviction right around last February or March, at the start of the pandemic.
We moved in with my brother-in-law and his family of five. Add my family of five and that’s ten folks in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house, so social distancing goes out the window. There’s a mental aspect too: my kids have to live through it. We’re trying to keep their lives in as high a quality we can in the midst of a pandemic and being homeless. It’s a real rough journey. But I know it’s through no fault of mine, my fiancé, or my children. We do the best we can to avoid these situations, but there’s something terribly wrong with the system. It’s a broken system.
You were also raised by a fast-food worker. Your mom worked at Hardee’s, and as you testified at the hearing, you started working in fast food at age sixteen to contribute money to the family, and that led you to leave school at seventeen to work full time.
My mom worked at Hardee’s for thirty years. And that’s why I know that all labor has dignity. I saw my mom get up every morning, get dolled up, and go do great work for this company. She gave thirty years of her life, and had nothing to show for it: no pension, no retirement plan, no health care, nothing. Fast-forward to me working for decades in fast food; and I can say, I enjoy my work. I work for a billion-dollar corporation who is very profitable. They can afford to pay me and my coworkers $15 and give us a seat at the table. Like I said, all labor has dignity, and folks are going to serve our burgers, clean our toilets, work in our hospitals, work in our schools, be our janitors, and they all deserve $15. They all deserve a living wage.
I want to ask you about a moment during the Senate Budget Committee hearing. Carl Sobocinski, who owns the 301 Restaurant Group in Greenville, South Carolina, also testified at the hearing, and at one point, as he was answering one of the committee members’ questions, he pivoted to addressing you.
He told you he wanted to hire you at one of his restaurants if you’d move back to South Carolina, where you’re originally from. This is someone who was there to testify in opposition to the $15 minimum wage, offering to hire you, a leader in the Fight for $15. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. What did you think of that situation?
He said I was “underutilized.” My thinking is that I don’t know the guy personally, I don’t know his view on the working class as a whole, but he doesn’t understand that it’s not only me who is being underutilized. His workers are being underutilized as well. They’re being underpaid. Their inability to have a seat at the table is not only harmful to me, but it’s harmful to small businesses, including his, as well.
As I said in the hearing, if I had higher wages, I’d be able to take my family out to restaurants like his. I’d be able to go back home and visit South Carolina, where my mother still is. I’d be able to eat out, visit our local flower shops, go to shoe stores, and so on. Until he wraps his mind around that and pays his workers a livable wage, he won’t truly value them.
The last thing I want to ask you about is the Fight for $15 campaign. You’ve been part of it for years, and a commitment like that isn’t made lightly. How did you join the organizing?
When I started, eight years ago, I was working at Burger King and Pizza Hut — I started working at McDonald’s shortly after. But back then, I was working two jobs at once, and I remember the day when I met organizers very clearly. It was a spring day, a Sunday, and I was at work at Burger King. We were behind on bills, I was sad and stressed out, and I was mopping the lobby. I heard the door and three people came in. When folks come in, you have to put the smile on and get back to work. So I put my smile on quickly and greeted them. And then I noticed it was three workers: one of them had a subway uniform on, one was from Domino’s, and one was a McDonald’s worker.
They came up to the counter and they asked me some questions. They asked, “Do you think fast-food workers deserve a living wage?” I didn’t know what a living wage was eight years ago, I just thought, “living” and “wage” are two good words together so I said, “Yeah, whatever that is, that sounds good.” They asked, “Do you think fast-food workers deserve vacation time, paid sick time, health care benefits?” I said, “Yeah, shoot, not only fast-food workers but every worker should have that.” And they said, “We’re coming together here in Kansas City to fight to win those things.
My first thought was: You can win those things? But I said sure, I’m down. I didn’t just sign up that day, I called six of my coworkers to the front to listen to what these folks were talking about, about how we can get a living wage, health care benefits, and so on. That was the first day. Now, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know it was going to be this kind of ride. I didn’t know what a strike was, or a rally, or a protest, but it’s special.
We aren’t reinventing the wheel. We look back at movements that came before us, and we follow the blueprint, and it doesn’t win overnight. It took a long time to end slavery, a long time for woman to win the right to vote, years to end segregation. And America has some of the bloodiest labor history of any country on the planet. So we know where we come from. That’s something we remind ourselves of when we’re on the strike line: we follow in the footsteps of those who came before us. Folks have lost their lives to give us an eight-hour workday. If folks hadn’t stood up in protest, my kids might be working at seven, eight, nine years old. You have to know what cloth you’re cut from, and the tradition, when you’re building a movement.
And we’ve won raises for millions of people in the Fight for $15. Most recently, Florida, a state that Trump dominated at the polls, voted overwhelmingly for $15 an hour. We’ve seen that across the country. You take solace in the victories. On any television news outlet, even the right-wing ones, they talk about $15 an hour, whether they like it or not. So we’ve changed the narrative in this country too, and that’s no small feat.
Is there anything else you want people to know about your job, the pandemic, the Fight for $15 and a union, or anything else?
If you’re working right now, and you go to work every day and life is horrible, it’s not going to change. Nothing just happens. So if you truly care about your family, your community, you have to stand up and make your voices heard. You have to take action if you want change. A union is simply workers coming together, using their strength in numbers, to get things done that you can’t get done on your own.
From day one, we’ve been clear that McDonald’s, for example, can give us a seat at the table today. But there is also something to say about elected leaders. They’ve marched with us, they’ve raised their voices on media platforms, but we have a message for not only the Biden administration, but for all Democrats and Republicans: it’s time for you to feel the pain of your constituents.
We went to the ballot box, we flipped Georgia, we put you in office, and if you want to continue to hold your office, you need to start doing what’s right for the working class. You need to make $15 a reality. You need to pass a 365-days-a-year stimulus plan, and you have to do it right. We will remember next election cycle those who oppose the working class and workers and doing what’s right — whether that’s in Alabama, California, New York, Alaska, Wyoming, or North Dakota, it doesn’t matter. Folks need $15.
Have you been following the union election taking place at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama?
Amazon workers are rising up just like teachers, just like truck drivers, just like Walmart workers, and there’s no one way to get it done. Long ago, auto workers at the Ford plant had to sit in to win their rights, and it wasn’t only the workers that were sitting in, it was the community outside too. You don’t only need to continue to take action, but you need to bring your coworkers and your community as well. Build your union, organize, and strike — don’t be afraid to strike if you need to. And vote “union: yes.”