I have a dream: $15 and the union
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America’s poorest workers are starting to say “I Have a Dream” once again.

As a low-wage worker at the U.S. Senate, I should know.  I’m one of the millions of low-wage workers from New York to LA who are seeing their hourly pay rise towards $15 an hour after going on strike against poverty jobs.  

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Bigger pay checks mean that fast food, retail and federal contract workers can start to dream again – some of us will now be able to quit our second jobs or just make our rent and utility payments on time.  

However, while a pay raise is an important, it’s not enough.   Workers like me still need to win the freedom to form a union.  

The truth is a one-time raise won’t get us into the middle class.  The extra money will help me buy diapers for my newborn and pay down my student loan debt a little bit, but it won’t allow me save enough to afford the expensive college classes I need to finish my degree. 

So right now, I still feel stuck, and so do a lot of low-wage workers I know.

In order to get ahead, we need more than a one-time raise – we need a way to win regular pay increases and good benefits like health care, retirement, and child care.  

That’s why we are also fighting to win collective bargaining rights – a union at work the only way for us to keep improving our jobs and progressing up the economic ladder. 

In other words, it’s time for us to focus on the “union” part of the “Fight for $15 and a Union.”   

As a black man in America, I understand importance of fighting to win a good union job.   I am fighting to break free from the stereotypes, improve my situation, and realize my dreams.  That’s why I won’t stop striking until workers win the freedom to unionize and I won’t stop protesting until I get the respect I deserve in my community.

As we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s important to remember that he himself recognized that his dream would only be realized when workers won both civil and labor rights. 

That’s why MLK said the demands of those fighting for racial justice are fundamentally the same as workers in the labor movement.   In 1961, he told the AFL-CIO that “Our needs are the same as labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in their community.”  

But Dr. King didn’t just give speeches, he also marched hand in hand with the mostly African-Americans seeking to vindicate their right to organize for good jobs.  In fact, MLK was gunned down in Memphis where he was leading a strike of low-wage sanitation workers.  

Today, workers who are “Fighting for $15 and a Union” are walking in the footsteps of Dr. King.  If he were alive today, I’m sure that he would be on the picket lines with me and my co-workers

He would press President Obama to issue a “$15 and Union” Executive Order.  He would lobby Congress to pass the “$15 and a Union” legislative package introduced by Senator Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders on Trump pick: This is how a rigged economy works Trump picks Goldman Sachs chief for top economic adviser: report Sanders congratulates Carrier union leader after Trump attack MORE (I-Vt.).  And he would call on major corporations like the Compass Group and Goodwill – the food service and janitorial contractors at the U.S. Capitol and Senate – to stop discriminating against worker activists and agree to a labor peace accord.

In other words, Dr. King would still be fighting to make the dreams of low-wage workers into reality.  5o years after winning civil rights, I hope our elected leaders recommit to continuing the legacy of MLK by helping workers win union rights. 

Thomas is a service employee in the Capitol.