Last week, I joined hundreds of striking fast-food workers on the streets of Harlem, where they held signs that read "I am a Man" and "I am a Woman" and chanted: "You can't survive on $7.25." The demonstration, led by workers struggling to survive on the minimum wage, recalled the organizing that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was engaged in when he was assassinated in Memphis 45 years ago.
Dr. King was in Memphis as part of his Poor People's Campaign. He spoke to striking sanitation workers who, like the fast-food workers in New York City today, said, "We can't do it; we can't give our children access to the great dream of this nation while being so disrespected and so poorly paid.'
As we have moved from a post-industrial economy to a service economy, it is increasingly clear that the only way to rebuild the middle class is to do what we did in the past: organize and build the strength of the labor movement.
When I was a young organizer on those same Harlem streets 20 years ago, making $10 per hour, I thought I had it hard. The notion that in 2013 parents should be forced to raise families on $7.25 is simply outrageous.
Sadly, we are approaching the day when half the workers in this country will be making minimum wage. For the first time, the U.S. economy has shifted in the direction of a part-time, low-wage workforce. This explosion of low-wage jobs is widening the already-large gap between the rich and the working poor, making it harder for Americans to move up the economic ladder.
No person can maximize the American Dream on the minimum wage. The fast-food workers' newfound willingness to organize a union and strike -- at tremendous personal and economic risk -- shows just how bad the economy has become for low-wage workers.
One striker told a reporter he eats Instant Ramen noodles every day in an effort to make ends meet. Another said he lives with six extended family members packed into a one-bedroom apartment. Several indicated they walk miles and miles to get to work because train fare is too expensive. Their backs are firmly against the wall.
Forty-five years after Dr. King said that it is a crime for workers in the world's richest country to receive starvation wages, we remain in the midst of an economic crisis. The NAACP stands behind all the workers across the country struggling on a $7.25 minimum wage. We need a living wage so all families and children have access to the great dream of this country.
Dr. King died standing up for workers who were being exploited and underpaid because he understood that the only way we get to be One Nation is to eradicate poverty. We must get to a place where all of our children have access to the American Dream.