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Why I'm voting for the first time and bringing everyone I know

Terrence Wise speaks during the Summit on Worker Voice at the White House in Washington, DC
Nicolas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
Terrence Wise speaks during the Summit on Worker Voice at the White House in Washington, DC

As a 37 year old McDonald's worker trying to support three kids on $9.00/hour, I haven't had much time for politics. In fact, I've never voted—not in a local or even a national election. But this year, that will change.

I never voted because I never felt politicians listened to me. I was born in a housing project in South Carolina, and I grew up fast. My mother worked overtime at Hardee's, yet I often came home to an empty refrigerator or a dark home because the electricity had been cut off.

As soon as I turned 16, I dropped out of school and started work at Taco Bell. Since then I've stayed in the fast-food industry – mostly working jobs at McDonald's. I've spent my whole life focused on the next paycheck, the next meal, and the next place to lay my head. And when you're faced with the prospect of homelessness, the idea of picking up a newspaper and reading about the horse race in Washington isn't a priority.

My life changed when I got involved with the Fight for $15 in Kansas City. For nearly four years, workers like me have been chanting in the street, going on strike, and getting arrested. Over time we captured the attention of politicians and suddenly San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and SeaTac were adopting a $15/hour wage.

Then Oregon and Massachusetts adopted the wage for all home care workers. And in the spring, New York and California were racing to become the first state to pass a $15/hour wage.

Even the president of the United States heard us. In October 2015, I was asked to introduce President Obama at a White House summit on the importance of working people coming together for respect, wage increases, and the right to form a union.

Since we started, 20 million Americans have gotten a raise. We have proven what everyone said was impossible: we have the power to win $15.

"I'm still scrounging for the money to buy my daughters' winter jackets, and I know too many of my co-workers face the same struggles. That's why I'm going to the ballot box this election, and why I'm bringing friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, church members, and more with me."

But we can't do it alone. We need to elect politicians who will stand with us. In Missouri, the cards continue to be stacked against working people. Just last month, another Kansas City McDonald's worker and leader in the Fight for $15, Myrna De Los Santos, died at the age of 49 due to diabetes complications.

Myrna's death was devastating, and it was also preventable. Myrna died too soon because McDonald's paid her only $9/hour—not enough to treat her diabetes. She also didn't have access to health care, as Missouri Republican lawmakers blocked a proposed Medicaid expansion in 2013 through which she would have received Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

And last year, in Kansas City, workers won a pay increase from $7.65/hour to $13/hour. But before we could rejoice, state legislators in Jefferson City repealed the measure under pressure from the fast-food industry. And just like that, the elected leaders who were supposed to represent me stole the raise that would have gone towards food and shelter for my daughters.

On Election Day, Missourians will consider Amendment 6—a voter ID referendum to decide if the Constitution should be changed to require voters to have a specific state-issued ID in order to cast a ballot. It's widely thought that this law will disenfranchise elderly voters, students, non-white voters, and underpaid workers who do not easily have access to photo IDs; Gov. Jay Nixon has said so himself, and vetoed it in the past. But now it's coming back around—pushed by the same legislature that killed our raises.

Who we elect to office can make all the difference for people already living on the edge. We've made enormous progress—but we haven't won yet. I'm still scrounging for the money to buy my daughters' winter jackets, and I know too many of my co-workers face the same struggles. That's why I'm going to the ballot box this election, and why I'm bringing friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, church members, and more with me.

There are 64 million of us who deserve a raise. Politicians, the solution is simple: If you want our votes, show us first that you support our demands for a fair wage and union rights.

Commentary by Terrence Wise, a McDonald's worker and a leader in the Fight for $15 campaign.

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