After 10 years working in fast food, South Carolina native Rachel Nelson hung up her apron and walked out of Hardee’s early Sunday morning, joining hundreds of other minimum wage workers in the rainy streets of Charleston calling for $15 an hour pay and the right to join a union.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, but I was not nervous,” Nelson told ThinkProgress. “I was excited that my voice was finally going to be heard.”
For the vast majority of her working life, Nelson has made the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Just this year she got a raise to $9 an hour, but it’s still not enough to support herself and her three children, ages 12, 11 and 8. To make ends meet, she depends on food stamps and public housing. After learning about the Fight for 15 workers’ movement — which has gained strength over the past few years and has already pushed several states and cities to raise their minimum wages — Nelson decided to take the risk of joining Sunday’s one-day strike.
“Making $15 an hour would help me save money for my kids’ college education,” she told ThinkProgress. “It would allow me to stand on my own two feet and not depend on public assistance.”
On Sunday night, the workers will take their messages to the streets surrounding the conference center where the three remaining Democratic candidates will debate. They are hoping to replicate what happened in November, when fast food workers went on strike in Milwaukee on the day of a Republican debate hosted there, and the debate moderator pressed the candidates on what they would do to address the workers’ concerns.
The movement has already succeeded in pushing all three Democratic candidates to endorse the call for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to join a union. Now, in a testament to the strength of the workers’ organizing, they are fighting to prove who has the most pro-worker platform.
Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both unveiled plans to give workers guaranteed paid family leave. Sanders has also introduced a bill in the Senate that would make it easier for workers to unionize, and Martin O’Malley released a Workers’ Bill of Rights that includes the right to a predictable weekly schedule and subsidized childcare.
Sanders also stopped by the workers’ march on his way to the debate stage, and told them via a bullhorn to “keep up the fight,” because “people should not have to work for starvation wages.”
“We are making progress,” he told the cheering crowd. “There are cities all around the country moving in the direction of $15 an hour. If elected president, that’s what I will fight for.”
Yet Nelson told ThinkProgress that in order to win her vote, candidates need not only to explain what sets them apart, but back up those claims.
“You can’t just say you’re with us and not take action,” she said. “If they want to be elected as president, if they want my vote and the vote of millions of struggling voters here, they need to get on the right side of history and show me that they’re standing by us in our fight for $15 an hour and union rights.”
2016 is the first election that Nelson has been motivated to vote in, and polling suggests millions of others like her could prove a formidable voting bloc this November.
A survey conducted by the National Employment Law Project of workers making less than $15 an hour found that a candidate’s promise to raise the minimum wage would greatly increase both registration and voter turnout.
Of those not currently registered to vote, 45% said they would either definitely or probably register if there was a candidate supporting a $15 minimum wage and a union for all workers. Of all registered voters, 65% said they would be more likely to vote in the 2016 presidential election if there was such a candidate.
“Our research shows that these issues could not only push millions of often disaffected, low turnout voters to show up on election day,” said the study’s authors.