Why We Fight for $15

Tamara Elzubair and Elizabeth James live in my community of greater Schenectady, New York and can’t make ends meet. And that’s a problem.

Tamara, who makes less than $15 an hour, can’t afford to live on her own. Instead she lives with two of her three daughters and her three grandchildren even though she works two jobs, as a certified nursing assistant at a county nursing home and as a private duty aide.

"No one who works two jobs like I do, no one who works any full time job, should have to struggle the way we do," she said. "Ironically, I have to work so many hours to pay our bills that I have less and less time to spend with my family, even though we live together."

Elizabeth, a mother of three, earns $9.75 an hour. With $15 an hour, Elizabeth would be able to pay her bills and provide for her family.

"I would be able to buy clothes for my children out of the store instead of giving them hand-me-downs or going to the (food bank)," Elizabeth said. "I would also be able to pay rent and electric on time and not have to choose."

Today, fast-food workers, janitors, nursing home workers and other low-wage workers are coming together from across the country to strike for a $15-an-hour wage. The Sierra Club is proudly standing with workers in this fight for a living wage because it’s the same as the fight for a living planet. Corporations are making massive profits, but the toxic shortcuts they’re taking to pad their pocketbooks are causing hardworking families to live without the ability to cover their basic needs like food, health care, child care, rent and transportation, all while bearing the brunt of their employer’s corporate pollution.

Low-wage jobs are held by everyday Americans -- your neighbor, your bus driver, your family member -- nearly half of all workers across the country make less than $15 an hour. Low wage workers are more often than not women, many of whom have children and families to provide for. These women are not only overrepresented in lower-wage occupations, but they are paid less than men in these occupations. And the gap for women of color is even greater. People in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to live with the effects of polluted air, with lower income women, especially women of color, disproportionately impacted by environmental toxins. On top of that, low wage jobs are some of the most environmentally hazardous jobs there are, especially when workers lack union representation. We need livable wages because we can't break a glass ceiling we can't reach.

Workers are coming together and striking all over the country to fight for $15 an hour because it works -- these workers are raising the minimum wage. Following countless strikes and days of action, a growing number of cities across the country -- from Seattle to Pittsburgh -- have passed liveable wage laws. The movement is gaining momentum, it’s no longer just cities, but entire states who are beginning to act -- last week, New York and California just signed into law a gradual increase to $15 an hour by 2021 and 2022. We’re standing by the side of workers because it’s time to take these victories nationwide.
Tamara and Elizabeth aren’t alone in their struggles. Low-wage jobs are the fastest growing jobs in the nation.  In towns all over America, these workers can’t make ends meet. In Miami, a worker making minimum wage has to work 79 hours a week, the equivalent of two  full-time jobs, just to rent a two-bedroom apartment. 

The Fight for 15 movement -- made up of our allies in the labor, environment, health care, fast food and other communities -- is taking on the same corporate model that poisons our planet -- the fast food stores that pay so little that their own workers can't afford to eat the very food they sell are running global supply chains that emit the crazy levels of carbon pollution that’s destroying our climate.

McDonald's, the focus of today’s strikes, makes their French fries with palm oil sourced from the destruction of the world’s tropical forests, the same forests that both provides homes to indigenous populations and saves lives by pulling dangerous carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Often, the industries that pollute the most pay the least.

When McDonald’s adds to killer heat waves, wildfires and deadly floods by shipping palm oil across the globe, using massive amounts of fossil fuels and uprooting our forests, who suffers the most? It's the people who can't afford to flee from climate induced natural disasters, and the people who must raise their kids next door to coal plants, fracking sites, and oil refineries -- it’s the people without paid family leave and without a living wage.

Pollution isn’t cheap -- hospital and doctor's visits, asthma inhalers and other health needs add up, and on low wages, are extremely difficult to cover. What happens when the children living under clouds of pollution get sick? Mothers without a living wage and without paid leave are forced to choose between missing work and much needed income to take care of their children, or making enough money to pay for their expenses.

These billion-dollar companies can and must do better. These billion-dollar companies must invest in people, provide paid family leave, and pay their employees a living wage. These billion-dollar companies must invest in our communities and source their products locally. Workers and families deserve better.

**A shorter version of this post appeard in the Albany Times Union**


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