Watching politicians and pundits debate whether to raise the minimum wage to $15, I sometimes wonder what planet they’re on. Their arguments fixate on everything from the political process to abstract economic theories.
But for workers like me, what they’re really voting on is whether they think we deserve to survive.
As a boy growing up in Guyana, I fantasized about moving to the United States and pursuing the American dream.. At the age of 35, I finally made good on my goal of moving to the land of opportunity.
But it didn’t work out the way I had expected.
Back in Guyana, I was one of 14 children. Yet, while my dad was the sole breadwinner in the family, we always had enough for a roof over our heads and food on the table. When I grew up, I started my own lumber business, and never had to worry about things like wages, since I was my own boss.
But then I moved to America, and my life was very different from the one my father had. I was raising 10 fewer children than he did, and working longer hours, yet we still struggled to get by. My wife was a home health aide, making a low hourly wage, and I was toiling at three different fast-food joints in Brooklyn at the same time, trying to support the family. Despite all our hard work, we still couldn’t make ends meet.
Why? My wage was $7.25 an hour. Try living off that.
Struggling to survive
To eat, we had to rely on food stamps, even though we both were constantly working. The money was so hard to stretch out, bills began piling up and eventually our lights were cut off. Suddenly, I had to try to put two kids through college, but I knew there was no way my income would cut it. I wasn’t just frustrated — I was scared, and even contemplated going back home to my country. Ironically, the land of opportunity had become a place where I worked harder than ever, to earn much less and struggle like never before.
That’s when I got involved in the Fight for $15, an organizing campaign to help raise wages for workers like me. After an organizer visited one of the restaurants I worked at, I went to a citywide meeting and realized others were in my exact same situation — working long, hard hours, with little to show for it. We voted to go on strike and demand $15 an hour, because that’s what we decided we needed to survive. Not live lavishly, but survive.
Our first strike was Nov. 29, 2012. I was terrified I’d get fired for walking out, but, honestly, I had no choice. Things were so hard, I could not survive on $7.25 any longer. Eventually, our coalition of workers got even stronger; we were joined by car wash workers, airport baggage handlers and home health aides.
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When we would protest, some politicians pleaded with us to be more reasonable in our demands. Just settle for $12, they’d tell us. But we held steady at $15, telling them to try living on anything less and see how long you have shelter and food for your family.
And by 2015, New York and California were battling to be the first state to $15 for some of their workers. We were off to the races. Our movement was growing. And it was unstoppable. In less than eight years, a strike by 200 of us in New York City turned into more than $68 billion in raises for 27 million workers, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, which supports minimum-wage increases. By 2026, 42% of the country is now on the way to $15.
A second chance
I’m one of those 42% whose life has changed. Now, I work as a New York baggage handler making more than $17, and it will go up again soon, to $19. All thanks to raises won by the Fight for $15 and a union campaign.
How has a living wage changed my life? First of all, I no longer have to work three different jobs. I go to work at one place now, which means I have much more time to spend with my family. Essential activities that many take for granted are new experiences for me. I can help my kids with homework. I am bonding with them much more than when I was out working all day and night. I can take on side projects and hobbies. And I can work towards sending my children to college.
Financially, I pay my rent on time now and am off of food stamps. I won’t lie to you. Life isn’t perfect. We still struggle, especially when my wife got sick and had to stop working. But we no longer have to worry where the next meal is coming from. I can pay my bills and feed my family. I don’t have to choose anymore.
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So I feel much better. But I’m not satisfied yet, because a lot of other people are fighting for these same rights. They need better wages and housing, too, so they don’t have to depend on food stamps or rack up delinquent bills. There are tens of millions out there enduring what I went through eight years ago — but even worse. Many are risking their lives in a pandemic, working front-line jobs to keep everyone else afloat while other Americans are staying home to keep their families safe. They’re fighting like hell to survive, and worry they will end up on the streets if they don’t.
That’s who I’m worried about: the millions of Alvins working day and night in the supposed land of opportunity, who don’t know how much longer they can keep going.
When Congress votes on raising the minimum wage, I hope this is what they will think about.
Alvin Major is a John F. Kennedy International Airport baggage handler who participated in the first strike by fast-food workers in 2012. He is a longstanding leader in the Fight for $15.