The Fight for $15 has been in the headlines less since the election, but the national movement advocating for a $15 minimum wage hasn’t lost momentum in 2017. In spite of the challenges of the current presidential administration, the movement already achieved a notable win when Andy Puzder, former CEO of CKE Restaurants and notorious opponent of a minimum wage increase, withdrew his nomination for Labor Secretary in February. They also continue to see gains toward wage increases on the local front, in places like Kansas City, MO, home to StandUp KC, one of the earliest established chapters of the Fight for $15. I wanted to know more about how this movement was progressing in my former city of residence, and one of the chapter’s most vocal leaders was kind enough to share her story with me recently.
Bridget Hughes is a fast food worker and mother of four who, despite over a decade in her industry, has not seen her pay reflect the hard work she puts in every day. Though she was initially reluctant to join StandUp KC, she has become a prominent member of the movement, and wants to make it clear that Fight for $15 isn’t going anywhere, any time soon. And it’s vital that her fight continue for the sake of all workers, because as Barack Obama put it in his farewell address, “Our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.”
I read that you were hesitant to become active with Stand Up KC. Can you explain exactly what you were hesitant about, and what ultimately made you want to get involved?
Originally, I was kind of in a state where I basically lived a life of disappointment; school not working out, college not working out, and now as a low-wage parent, I can’t afford to go back to school. And after such a cycle of poverty, I thought nothing was ever gonna work out. When I first heard about the movement, I thought, “This isn’t gonna work out either.” But I got tired of putting my all into a job and coming home with pennies, [and] not being able to make ends meet.
Eventually, I just felt ready to stand up and make a change because we deserve better than this.
Can you discuss your history in the fast food industry, especially from your experience as a working mother? How demanding, physically and mentally, is fast food work? And what opportunities do or don’t exist to receive promotions and pay increases?
I’ve been working in fast food for 11 years now. I’ve been in all different types of fast food, chicken, tacos, burgers. No matter where I was at, it was all the same pattern. Long hours, low pay, stressful, fast-paced environment, no benefits. I always adjusted no matter what job I was [at], but then to come home and see those disconnect notices and bills no matter how hard I worked…It put this emotional stress on top of the physical stress of this job.
Between trying to juggle a sporadic schedule and working full-time, I feel like I miss out on my kid’s lives. I can’t do the normal American things with my kids, like taking them to dance class or spending time with them, because I have to put so much time into making enough to feed them. It’s painful.
I’ve been doing this work for 11 years and this is the first time I’ve been offered a promotion and it’s only 50 cents. It isn’t enough to make a difference in my kids’ life. There’s no opportunity in fast food: to go back to school, create a better life for your kids, no benefits, no healthcare.
How many hours per week do you work, and how predictable is your schedule?
I’m right around 100 hours every paycheck (every two weeks). I don’t know what 40 hours a week is…I can’t do that. Sometimes, my schedule is not predictable at all. I don’t have set days off or on. It’s very hard to be able to request a day off.
My husband, on the other hand, is working two full-time low-paying jobs. He makes $9.50 [an hour] at one and $10 at the other. With me working more than full-time and his two jobs, raising four kids is a struggle. And even with our three paychecks, we cannot afford to do all we need for our family. If it tells you anything, we’re living in a two-bedroom apartment, with four kids.
What does your role with Stand Up KC entail?
I’m a leader with the movement. It requires me to organize my co-workers—bring my co-workers together to make the movement stronger, to take on the issues we face on our jobs and make them better. I also am out there talking to the general public. I tell my story so that I reach the hearts and minds of people to help them to understand what workers go through and what it really means to make low wages. I have to tell my story so that people know that we are real people working hard and we are struggling to feed our families, even though we work full-time in the richest country in the world.
How connected is Stand Up KC to other chapters of the Fight for $15 movement across the country? How is Standup KC similar and different to the broader Fight for $15 movement?
Stand Up KC is one of the strongest chapters of the Fight for $15. We were one of the first seven cities where workers started organizing for $15 and a union. Now, when we go on strike, it’s hundreds of cities across the country. It’s not just the Fight for $15, but we work with other organizations that are working on [wage equality issues].
How much of this movement is specific to earning protections for fast food workers, and how much is to benefit low-wage workers from all industries?
This whole movement is a low-wage worker movement. It did start off as fast food workers, in NYC several years ago who went on strike, but it has grown and it has always meant to grow. Now, our movement includes low-wage workers from child care, home care, airport workers, anyone who makes low wages. And these jobs are the fastest growing in our economy. We need to make them better. There’s 64 million Americans who make less than $15 an hour and we’re working to raise wages and improve jobs all across the board.
In what ways is this movement working to not only help workers earn a living wage, but also the respect that goes along with it?
Our movement has always been about fighting for $15 and a union. The union is so important because we need to have a voice on our job to get protection against disrespect, discrimination, and sexual harassment that are big problems in low-wage jobs. The only way to ensure that workers get those things [is a union] not to mention the benefits that I don’t get, like health care or dental care, set schedule, or paid maternity leave, which would have been nice when I had my kids.
I went back after 4 weeks of unpaid maternity leave because I needed to go back to work so I could keep food on the table. I had to take unpaid breaks at work to go to the bathroom and pump so I could keep breastfeeding my baby. But I didn’t even get regular breaks, so sometimes I had to go 10-12 hours without a break, and couldn’t pump enough to feed my hungry baby. I was forced to stop breastfeeding too early because I couldn’t keep working 40 hours a week and keep up with what my baby needed.
When we talk about our stories and what we go through on the job, we are taking a stand to improve the working conditions on the job and fighting to get the respect and dignity that we deserve.
In what other ways is Stand Up KC adjusting to the challenges of the new presidential administration?
Despite the outcome of the election, we’re fighting back and getting our voices out there. We’re letting this administration and all politicians know that if you don’t have the working people’s interests at heart – and that means all workers regardless of color, race, gender, what religion you practice or who you love – then we will stand up and fight back.
We fought back and won against Puzder’s nomination as labor secretary and we’re going to keep building our movement, not just in the streets, but also at the polls. On every level, we’ll be calling on any politicians to make sure they fight for working people.
Given the current political climate, what makes you still want to fight?
Everything that this country is built on, all that social movements of the past have fought for; the victories that we won for racial justice and gender justice and for workers’ under the labor movement, is in jeopardy right now. If we don’t fight back, things can get so much worse. I’m going to continue to stand up and fight back to say that this is not the America we want.
What’s next on the agenda for Stand Up KC?
Well, on May 1, we’re having a national day of action on International Worker’s Day. We’re having a rally and march to bring together these different groups fighting for workers’ rights and economic justice, immigrants’ rights, racial justice, [fighting] together against these different forms of injustice and show that we have to be in this fight together. An injury to one of us is an injury to all of us.
Anything I didn’t ask about that you want to mention?
Just want to say, we will continue to fight for racial and economic justice for all workers, and won’t be going anywhere until we get it.