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We deserve more: The critical role of women in the fight for $15

Fight For 15

My grandmother Mary Lee died poor, after a lifetime of hard, often backbreaking work. She sacrificed her health and, more often than not, her dignity so that her son and grandchildren would have a better life. Grandma deserved to have more to show for her labor, and so do the millions of American women struggling in poverty-wage jobs today. That’s why on April 14th, in honor of my grandmother, I’m joining brave workers leading the Fight for $15 and Union Rights, a national movement of low-wage workers fighting to build an economy that works for everyone from the ground up. Thursday will mark my ninth time joining workers on strike.

Grandma began picking cotton in the fields of Oklahoma when she was just a little girl. The daughter of sharecroppers, she had to drop out and go to work full time before middle school. When she was still a teenager, Grandma moved north to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hoping to land a job in one of the booming industrial factories. Unfortunately, as a black woman, Grandma faced racial and gender discrimination that meant she was excluded from many of the jobs that had lured her north with promises of economic security and a dignified life to anyone willing to work hard.

Those “good jobs,” the ones with advancement opportunities, worker protections, health care, and a pension, were largely reserved for men, especially white men. So Grandma worked the jobs that a disproportionate number of women, in particular black and Latina women, work. She cleaned offices and apartments, she worked various retail and food service jobs, and as a senior she took care of other elderly people as a personal care worker until Alzheimer's forced her to stop.

Today, racial and gender-based discrimination continue to push women into the same low-wage industries as my grandma. While women account for 30 percent or less of employees in high-wage sectors such as computer and mathematical science, architecture, and engineering, they account for more than 70 percent of the workforce in low-wage sectors such as personal care and health-care support occupations. And while those trying to block wage increases would have you believe that most minimum-wage workers are teenagers just trying to earn a little pocket change, the reality is that a large majority of them are more like my grandmother. In fact, adult women are the largest group of minimum-wage workers, far outnumbering teenagers of all genders and adult men.

The Fight for $15 has become an unstoppable global movement for economic, racial, and gender justice. What started three years ago with a few dozen fast-food workers in New York City has grown to tens of thousands of workers in more than 40 countries on six continents. Coming off of historic victories in communities across America from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to Pittsburg, this week’s strike is poised to be the largest yet.

I’m honored to stand and fight alongside brave workers risking everything to have the freedom provided by decent wages and a collective voice at work. A freedom that my grandmother, despite all her years of hard work, never had. This fight is personal for me, because although Grandma died poor, the labor of her and other service workers has made a handful of corporations and shareholders obscenely rich. Workers like Grandma deserve more; they deserve to share in the profits of their labor.

Nobody can seriously deny the impact the Fight for $15 has had. Despite our detractors’ best efforts, minimum-wage increases are passing in states and cities all over America, labor unions are racking up victories in contract negotiations, and workers—union and non-union alike—are acting with a collective force not seen in the United States since the labor movement’s beginnings. When we started, our opponents called us crazy, but we proved what can happen the second you stop letting other people dictate what is possible.    

The leadership of women can easily been seen in this movement. In addition to fighting for wage increases, underpaid workers, led largely by women of color, are demanding the right to form unions so that they can negotiate for access to health care, a fair work schedule, and paid medical and sick leave, among other things.

Thursday’s actions are about more than just a decent wage; they’re also about having dignity and respect on the job, and a schedule that allows you to take care of your responsibilities at work and at home. For my grandmother, not having paid medical leave and sick days meant she was forced to return to work just one week after giving birth to my father. She deserved more time to recover, and so do all the women who will be forced to return to work before they are physically and emotionally ready because of corporate greed and politicians who refuse to act.

Corporations and naysayers can and will keep pretending that these folks’ labor has no value, but you need only check their profit margins to know the truth. The reality is that the labor of America’s underpaid, largely female workers generates hundreds of billions of dollars in profits every year. There’s more than enough to pay workers a decent wage that keeps them from needing public assistance to survive.

Now is the time for women from all parts of the economic spectrum to join the Fight for $15 and mobilize for change. It’s a disgrace that many fast-food workers can’t afford to eat out themselves, many nursing home assistants and home care workers can’t afford to go to the doctor when they get sick, and many child care workers can’t afford to take the time to care for their own children because they’re stuck working two or three jobs. Join the fight to transform our economy so that women and our families are treated with dignity we deserve. Together we can build a country for our daughters that guarantees every woman a real shot at the American Dream, whether they choose to get a law degree like me, or to be a caretaker to the sick and disabled like my grandmother.

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