A phalanx of hundreds of chanting low-wage workers and their supporters — part of a national movement in pursuit of a $15 minimum wage and unionization — took to Kansas City’s streets Wednesday evening.
As they walked along Brookside Boulevard just southeast of the Country Club Plaza, they hoisted placards: “Good Jobs, $15 for all,” “Jobs with Justice,” “On Strike, No Retaliation.” One sign, “Wage Theft,” showed Ronald McDonald’s arms clutching at a pile of cash.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho,” some of the 600 or more protesters chanted, “these poverty wages got to go!”
The 6 p.m. march, which followed a 5 p.m. rally in Theis Park just south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, capped a day of organized wage protests in the Kansas City area, just as they were held throughout the nation.
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Organizers of the growing movement, known as Fight for 15, say similar protests were held in more than 250 cities nationwide on the April 15 deadline for workers to file their federal and state income taxes.
The theme of the protest, that fast-food workers and other low-wage employees are unfairly being paid a subpar subsistence wage while corporate profits rise — has been consistently the same since 2012, when fast-food workers first took to the streets in protest.
In Theis Park, supporters including Mayor Sly James of Kansas City spoke with passion from the lectern at the south end of the park.
“It is immoral. It is unjust. It is unreasonable. It is unforgivable. It is unexplainable,” the mayor proclaimed to rising cheers, “that we all live in the richest, most powerful, best country in the world and people work 40 hours a week and cannot feed their families.
“People work 40 hours a week and cannot put food on the table, cannot buy the clothes that they need, cannot take care of their children’s need, cannot access health care, cannot do things that other people do and take for granted. It is time for us to recognize that and it is time for it to stop.”
The Rev. Susan McCann of Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty spoke of the movement for greater wage equality in moral terms.
“This is holy work,” she said. “This is godly work. This is the sacred work of trying to create a moral economy … that honors the nobility of all work.”
The Rev. Rodney Williams of Swope Parkway United Christian Church raised cheers among the crowd with a speech of evangelical fire, declaring that God sides with workers because in creating the heavens and Earth is six days, God was a worker too.
Among those in the audience was Osmara Ortiz, 24, of Kansas City, with her 4-year-old daughter, Hailey.
Employed at Burger King, Ortiz said she makes $8.30 an hour and works about 19 hours per week. With a recent change in managers, she said, she takes home only about $100 per week while living in an apartment costing about $400 per month. That leaves her no way to pay other bills.
Most recently, she took out a $100 loan from a payday loan business. She said she would need to pay back $150 within two weeks. Unable to pay, she knows the interest will just rise.
“It’s really hard to live on that low wage,” she said. “We cannot even pay the basics. Every hardworking person deserves to not live in poverty.”
By 6:30, the crowd, which included supporters from unions such as the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, had wound its way to 51st and Cherry streets, in front of the Student Union at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
There, Liz Jacquinot, 27, who has worked for the last year teaching a class at the campus, spoke about the low wages adjunct professors receive. Her pay for a single semester course, she said, is $2,500, or less than $170 per week.
“I am excited that adjuncts are joining the fight for 15,” she said to a cheering crowd.
Adjuncts and contingent faculty face the same problem as other low-wage workers, she said to the crowd.
“We make poverty wages, work off the clock, can’t get full-time hours and go to two or three jobs just to get by,” Jacquinot said. “We receive no health care or benefits. Some of us have worked years without a raise and have been passed over for promotion over and over again. I think that sounds familiar, right?”
The adjuncts are fighting not for $15 an hour, but to be paid $15,000 per semester course.
The evening rally and march was preceded earlier in the day by other protests, one held at 6:30 a.m. at a McDonald’s at Meyer Boulevard and Troost Avenue. At noon, more than 200 low-wage workers — fast-food employees, home health care workers and others — gathered three deep at the corner of 37th and Main streets in front of the nonprofit The Whole Person Inc. to call attention to what they consider the subpar wages paid to home health care workers.
Lisa Miller of Kansas City was among them. Age 52, she said she works only 20 hours per week at $8.66 an hour, without sick pay, benefits or vacation pay. That works out to a yearly wage of just over $9,000, far less than the U.S. poverty level for a single person. In the U.S. in 2014, the poverty mark for a single-person household was $11,670.
LaJua Manning, 25, of Kansas City, supports herself and her 1-year-old daughter on $10 an hour she earns as an at-home certified nursing assistant. She said she works full time and more when she can get the hours but still brings home only about $12,000 per year, below the federal poverty level for a household with two persons. The federal poverty line for a household of two is $15,730.
“It is probably the most important civil rights issue in front of us today: that we have developed an entire class of people who are paid to live in poverty,” said the Rev. Donna Simon, minister at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church.
Her church at 3800 Troost Ave. has been in some ways the unofficial headquarters for the movement locally, formed under the group Stand Up KC.
At noon, Antoinette Hill, 20, a Kansas City fast-food worker at Popeye’s Chicken, protested along with Erica Lewis, 24, also of Kansas City. Lewis works as a cashier at a Salvation Army thrift store.
“It’s hard,” said Hill. “Like I just got paid and I only have $100 to my name.”
“I have less than that,” said Lewis, who said her paycheck often doesn’t pay for the basic needs. “Can’t eat. Sometimes miss meals.
Miller, the home health care worker, was unable to attend the evening rally because she had to care for a client.
“I have to work,” she said.