Durham County

I grew up in a union household. Why I’m fighting for my grandkids to say the same.

Wanda Coker
Wanda Coker contributed photo

I’ve worked in fast food for 26 years, clocking in thousands of hours at Wendy’s and Burger King. I’ve worked through a complicated pregnancy, kidney failure and diabetes. But instead of receiving a pay check I can live on, health benefits, or paid days off, my reward is a pile of medical bills that I can’t afford to pay.

Here’s what I’ve learned since I first put on my uniform: we can’t depend on a boss to protect us. The only way to win better pay and basic rights is through forming a union so we can fight for ourselves.

That’s why, this Labor Day, with thousands of other fast-food workers across the country, I’m going on strike for $15 an hour and union rights. We’re taking on the country’s rigged system that keeps down working people like me.

The difference between having a union and not is the difference between security and fear. When my father returned from combat in World War II, he became a postal worker and joined the postal workers’ union in Winston-Salem.

Thanks to his union he was paid a living wage and received basic benefits like paid sick days. If he had any concerns about his job, he could talk to union representatives who had his back. I remember if my father discussed workplace problems at the dinner table, my mother would tell him: “Go on and call the union.”

Today, most workers don’t have that kind of security. Union jobs are less and less common, and the jobs that are available are the ones like mine – where after 18 years, treatment for my kidney disease cost me thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. When my manager refuses to allow me to take short breaks to keep my diabetes in check, there is nothing I can say in response. My granddaughter pleads with me to not go to work when I’m sick, but without a union and sick days, I have no choice.

It’s not just fast-food companies that are leaving workers behind. It’s also my elected officials in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. In 2013, the Republican, majority white legislature passed a law that barred cities like Durham (which is majority Black), from raising the minimum wage. These raises are long overdue. Since I started working in 1991, my state’s minimum wage has only gone up by $3. Meanwhile, the cost of gas, utilities, and rent have grown tenfold. And with the current climate in Washington, I can’t depend on Congress to give me a raise either.

We can’t be held back by greedy employers and a rigged political system. We need union rights so we can turn the system back in our favor by giving ourselves the power to raise wages and defend our rights – today and years from now.

I’m fighting so my granddaughter will have more opportunities than I do, and to show her that her grandma isn’t going to wait for our struggles to be taken seriously. Previous generations of Black Americans didn’t simply wait for the Civil Rights Act to be passed – they marched, they endured the water hoses and canine units, and eventually they changed the law.

We have a long way to go to improve the lives of poor people and people of color in this country, but we can’t stand on the sidelines any longer. On Labor Day, we’ll be telling politicians and our employers alike: we need better pay, better protection, better health care, and more respect. Most of all, we need the right to join together in unions to be respected.

When my grandkids sit around the table with their kids, I want them to be able to say, “It’s the union that’s made our lives better.”

Wanda Coker is a resident of Durham. She has worked in the fast-food industry for nearly three decades.