Winning $15 an hour means everything to me

On a cold November day in 2012, I took a chance. Instead of showing up for my usual shift at KFC in Brooklyn, I went on strike, joining 200 New York City fast-food workers in the industry's first-ever mass walkout.

At the time, I was working at three different KFCs in Brooklyn, N.Y., receiving three different paychecks each for only $7.25 an hour. Because of the low pay, I was working as many hours as possible – normally up to 80 a week – and rarely saw my son and three daughters. My wife had just been diagnosed with cancer, and I could barely scrape together enough money to help her receive treatment. In the fleeting moments when I did see my family, I felt guilty for not being able to support them despite all the hours spent over bubbling oil and red-hot grills at KFC. I knew something had to change.

I went to a meeting one evening in downtown Brooklyn when, for the first time, I realized I wasn't alone. Scores of other fast-food workers were there, and it was clear to me we were in the same boat: we were all paid minimum wage—$7.25 at the time; many of us had irregular hours; and almost all of us had visible scars from being burned on the job. We decided we couldn't remain silent any longer. We were going to go on strike.

Fast-food workers and activists demonstrate outside the McDonald's corporate campus in Oak Brook, Illinois,calling for a minimum wage of $15 per hour and offer better working conditions for employees.
Scott Olson | Getty Images News
Fast-food workers and activists demonstrate outside the McDonald's corporate campus in Oak Brook, Illinois,calling for a minimum wage of $15 per hour and offer better working conditions for employees.

On that November morning, I was terrified. I didn't know if I would be disciplined, or maybe even fired, for going on strike. At $7.25, though, I felt I didn't have a choice but to take a chance. As the crowd massed on the strike line, my fear started to melt away. We chanted, "We can't survive on $7.25, We can't survive on $7.25, We can't survive on $7.25." I remember for the first time feeling so powerful, like change was possible, as we rallied with other workers who were in the same situation as me, from restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's.

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We all took a chance that day because our backs were against the wall. We demanded $15 and union rights because that's what we needed to support our families without having to rely on food stamps and rent assistance. We knew it would be a tough road, but we hoped that if we stuck together, we would win.

And we did. On Wednesday, when New York's Wage Board recommended raising pay to $15 an hour for fast-food workers in the entire state, I was instantly brought back to that day in November. I remember everyone telling us that $15 was impossible, and we should turn around and go back to our jobs. But in just three years, in the same city where the movement began, we have proven that we can be our own champions and change our own paths.

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In a little less than three years, I've been on strike 10 times. I've watched as the movement spread to Chicago, St. Louis, and then all around the country and the world. I traveled to Denmark, where I visited with fast-food workers who are paid more than $21 an hour, and it gave me hope that winning higher pay was actually possible.

Today, workers from Florida to Wisconsin to Arizona are declaring victory because they know that if $15 can happen in New York, it can happen in their states, too.

What does $15 mean for me? It means that I won't have to turn to food stamps to feed my four growing children. It means I don't have to live in fear of the gas or water being turned off because I can't pay my bills. It means that I can afford simple things, like a bus pass, without worrying, and that affording big things, like treatment for cancer, aren't entirely out of reach. For me, personally, $15 means everything.

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But more importantly, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo approves the wage board's recommendation and we win $15 across New York, it will prove that when you stand up and speak out, you can achieve life-changing victories. All across the country, underpaid workers are doing just that — not just in New York and not just in fast food, but in home care, child care and other industries too. Fifteen dollars an hour in New York is just the beginning, and if you don't believe me, you're just like everyone else who told us that November day nearly three years ago that we had no shot to win.

Commentary by Alvin Major, a KFC employee in Brooklyn and a leader of the $15 minimum-wage movement.