Guest Columnist

Older workers need unions and a $15 minimum wage

McDonalds worker Brandon Saul pickets in front of the McDonald’s, 1530 First Avenue NE, with other McDonald’s workers and union activists in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, May 23, 2019. The strikers are demonstrating for union rights and a livable wage. The demonstration was part of a coordinated protest in more than a dozen cities on the day of the fast food corporation’s annual shareholder meeting. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
McDonalds worker Brandon Saul pickets in front of the McDonald’s, 1530 First Avenue NE, with other McDonald’s workers and union activists in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, May 23, 2019. The strikers are demonstrating for union rights and a livable wage. The demonstration was part of a coordinated protest in more than a dozen cities on the day of the fast food corporation’s annual shareholder meeting. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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I used to have a union job at the sanitation department: I was paid $18 an hour, and I had benefits and paid leave. Things were pretty good. But after a medical issue, I had to leave that job. After a long job search, I ended up at McDonald’s, where I’m paid $8.25 an hour.

I’m 65 years old, and like many older Iowans, it’s a constant scramble for me to cover essentials like electric bills and rent. I use food stamps to pay for food. I don’t have a family to support or even a car to pay for — and still, I struggle to get by.

McDonald’s likes to say that it values the experience older workers like me bring to the job. The company says, “it’s a place where people at every stage of working life can see themselves grow and thrive while bringing stability and a different perspective that everyone can learn from.”

But that’s not how it feels to me. I have to fight for more hours on my schedule so I can pay my bills. And because I’m paid so little, I’m always behind.

That’s why I’m calling on presidential candidates and Iowa’s elected representatives to support our fight for $15 and a union at McDonald’s.

Right now, the U.S. House is considering legislation, the Raise the Wage Act, that would lift the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. And this week, I’ll be rallying alongside other McDonald’s workers at an AARP forum with presidential candidates in Iowa to demand a seat at the table with the company.

A $15 wage would be life-changing for Iowans, whether you’ve got a young family to support or you’re an older adult scraping by like me. It would mean relief from constant uncertainty and stress. It would let me catch up on rent, catch up on bills. I’d have a baseline level of security that everyone deserves.

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Back when fast-food workers first walked off the job in 2012, $15 an hour seemed impossible. Less than seven years later, we’ve turned it into a reality for millions of people.

Seven states have now passed laws raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour. Big companies like Target, Costco, Amazon and Bank of America have adopted $15, too. Overall, since the Fight for $15 and a union began, some 24 million workers have won more than $70 billion in raises.

But since the beginning, we’ve been demanding $15 an hour and the right to form a union. Low pay isn’t the only issue we face on the job. We also don’t have access to important benefits like health care coverage — and every day, workers face violence, harassment and other unsafe working conditions on the job.

Just like we did with the minimum wage, we’re pushing the conversation forward about the value of work in this country. Workers like me are challenging huge companies like McDonald’s so we can have a voice on the job.

And older workers like me are helping to lead the way. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers aged 55 and up are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. In five years, there will be 41 million of us, and we’ll represent nearly a quarter of the civilian labor force.

McDonald’s is right that older workers bring experience to the job. But they’re not paying us or recognizing our value in any way.

Here’s what my experience has actually taught me: Unions make all the difference. Unions mean fair pay for hard work, the ability to take off when you’re sick, stability. For real protection and dignity at work, McDonald’s workers need a union.

McDonald’s and other big corporations know this. But they care about their billions in profits, not the workers on the ground. That’s why they’ve done everything they can to keep wages low and illegally block the efforts of workers to join together in a union to lift our pay and improve our working conditions.

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As a result, working folks like my co-workers and me have to rely on food stamps, housing support, and other kinds of public assistance just to keep living. About half of fast-food workers around the country rely on public assistance to make ends meet, costing taxpayers more than $152 billion a year, including $1.28 billion in Iowa.

At 65, I’ve been around the block, and I know how to take care of myself. I don’t want taxpayers to help me stay afloat. I want to be able to go to work and know that my paycheck and benefits will be enough to live my life as I want it.

McDonald’s workers need elected officials to stand up for us and join in our demands for a seat at the table and wages that allow us to make ends meet. If you want my vote, show me you support $15 and union rights for all workers.

• Jackie Pirtle is a McDonald’s worker in Cedar Rapids.

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