When President Barack Obama wanted a voice to represent America’s working class for a White House event Wednesday, he found it in a second-generation fast food worker from Kansas City, Missouri.
Terrance Wise, 36, has been working in the fast food industry for more than 20 years. He earns $8 per hour working at two jobs, one at Burger King, the other at McDonald’s. On Wednesday, he introduced Obama at a forum on labor issues in the East Room of the White House.
A father of three, he works 7 days a week. His fiancé, who earns $10 an hour, also works every day. Still, Wise said, “the wages are so low we skip meals.”
“Things didn’t improve until I joined the Fast Food Workers Across America to stand up and build a movement for $15 (per hour) and create opportunities to make our voices heard on the job by joining a union,” Wise said in introducing Obama Wednesday. “I have seen first-hand how we are heard and how we make change when workers like us, in this room, stick together.”
Sarita Gupta, the executive director of Jobs with Justice, said “union representation is the strongest form of worker voice.” Gupta, who spoke on the opening panel of a White House event Wednesday, said many workers face erratic schedules and unions work to solve similar issues.
“Union and non-union workers understood that they can with with collective voice,” Gupta said.
Robert Hathorn, an autoworker from Clinton, Mississippi, spoke on the same panel. He said he works alongside Nissan workers, but he gets paid only $18 per hour while they get paid about $25 per hour for doing the same work.
“Labor rights are civil rights,” Hathorn said.
Obama hosted the first “Worker Voice Summit” at the White House to draw attention to issues of pay and work. In particular, he stressed the growing wage gap.
“While folks at the top did very well, ordinary workers were seeing their wages and their incomes flat-lining,” he said.
A key to changing that is giving workers a bigger voice in national debates and politics, particularly through unions, Obama and other participants said
Union membership is the lowest in 80 years, according to Obama. If people come together with the help of grassroots organizations and social media, said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., the image of unions can be improved.
“They make sure that people have good pay, benefits, workplace safety, work family balance, skills and not any fear of retaliation for speaking up for any unjust treatment on the job,” she said.
During his address, Obama presented a “set of common-sense principles” outlining what he believes American workers deserve. These six points included family support, adequate benefits, a safe workplace, sick leave, child care, education and freedom to choose to join unions.
“You can’t wait for Congress,” Obama said. The mindset that workers have no voice or that workers’ voices are inefficient needs to change, he said.
Rep. Wilson said she believes the conversations during the summit will empower citizens to fight for workers’ rights. “Like the president said, it’s not something Congress will solve.”