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Illinois needs jobs that boost the economy

   I work at a McDonald’s in East St. Louis. Last month, workers at stores operated by large fast food corporations in more than 60 cities around the country – including stores across the St. Louis metropolitan area – walked out on strike.
Point-mug-Houston   I was proud to help lead the strike at my store. We took action together because raising pay for workers in the fast-growing service sector will strengthen the economy across our region. 
   Workers like me want to be customers in our local stores, restaurants and other businesses. But we can’t afford to contribute to our local economy. Most of us are paid so little that we can barely afford our basic needs. 
   It is a growing problem that so many of the new jobs in the current economy pay very low wages. A falling wage floor hurts the entire economy because so many families don’t have enough purchasing power to contribute to local businesses. 
   After four years at McDonald’s, my hourly wage has increased 10 cents. I work full-time. I am also going to school full-time to learn the skills to be a pharmacy technician. I faithfully open my store every morning and go to school in the evenings. I leave when it’s dark out and come home when it’s dark. I don’t have much time to sleep, but I do what I have to do to pay my tuition, rent and utilities. After all of that work, I don’t get paid enough to buy the meals I serve other people. 
   I’m 24 years old. Like me, the typical fast food worker is no longer a teenager. Nationally, the average age of a fast food worker is 28 years old. One quarter of all fast food workers are raising children themselves.
There are thousands of workers who lost higher-paying jobs in the recession who are now working in fast food restaurants to try to sustain themselves. And there are thousands of younger workers like me who are working in fast food because these are the only jobs available. 
   I am fortunate that I am able to go to school. The skyrocketing price of college tuition has priced that dream out of reach for many other workers like me. Some of my coworkers would love to go back to school, but they don’t want to face the choice between buying school clothes for their children or textbooks for themselves.  
   It is very important to note that fast food workers in this movement are not calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 across the board. We are calling on the large, profitable corporations that set the standards in the fast food industry to sit down with us – the people whose hard work makes them successful – to raise the wage floor in our industry to $15 per hour. They can afford it. McDonald’s alone made $5.5 billion in profit in 2012. Other corporations in fast food are also reporting steadily increasing profits.
   We are calling for the corporations that dominate our industry to give us the right to form a union, without retaliation. With a united voice, my coworkers and I will be able to be heard, raise wages and restore broad-based prosperity for ordinary working people.
   Jobs that pay employees so little that we can’t afford basic needs cost the community in larger ways. Many workers in the fast food industry are paid so little that, even after working full-time, they qualify for food stamps. That kind of job does not boost the economy – it busts it.
   Large corporations like McDonald’s can get away with paying workers this little because they expect that communities in Illinois and across the country will pay to make sure workers do not go hungry. 
   Raising the wage floor in the service sector will mean that we can turn these jobs into economy boosting jobs. Jobs that mean that workers like me can afford to put more money back into our communities, create growth, and create more jobs. A $15 wage floor would put thousands of dollars into workers’ pockets and empower them to build the purchasing power that pushes a modern economy forward. 
   I went on strike because I believe that it’s time for a change. When I walked back to work, other workers and customers at the store around me were like me. They were fellow fast food workers and neighbors from my community. It was empowering. It gave us hope that we can push large corporations to create good jobs that move Illinois forward instead of holding it back. 
   I don’t want my kids to grow up and have to go through the same things I’m going through right now. It has to start somewhere. Why not with us?
   Andre Houston is a McDonald’s employee and a leader of the fast food worker union movement in the St. Louis area.

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