Kansas City’s third major day of protest this year for higher fast-food wages added quiet prayer and singing to the shouted slogans that characterized large rallies in July and August.
During a rally Thursday afternoon outside a McDonald’s restaurant — one of an estimated 100 actions nationally — a group of clergy prayed for relief for low-wage workers who struggle to make ends meet.
Speakers married a plea for social justice with the ongoing call from labor advocates for $15-an-hour wages for fast-food workers.
“An economic system that values profit more than the welfare of people is unjust and unethical,” said the Rev. Susan McCann, a minister at Grace Episcopal Church. “No one who works full time should be living in poverty.”
Under heavy police presence from the East Patrol Division’s tactical response unit, hundreds of placard-carrying fast-food workers and their supporters lined the Independence Avenue sidewalk for the afternoon rally. Many participated in a group prayer and the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
The McDonald’s rally followed noisier protests earlier in the day at Popeyes, Wendy’s, Burger King and Subway locations.
The demonstrations were part of a nationwide day of protest. The $15 target is about double the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and about $6.50 more an hour than what the average fast-food worker is earning in the Kansas City area.
Local movement leaders Thursday downplayed the $15 target in favor of advocating for a “livable wage.” That focus coincided with a midweek call by President Barack Obama to improve low-wage pay, which came on the heels of social justice remarks by Pope Francis.
The U.S. Senate is likely to vote on minimum wage legislation by the end of the year, but House Republicans are expected to oppose it, so no federal movement is expected soon to raise the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage.
Supporters have been more successful at state and local levels. California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island have raised their minimum wages this year.
Around the country Thursday, workers and their supporters brandished signs and chanted slogans such as “No burgers. No fries. Make our wages super size.”
Nationally, the movement includes a push for collective bargaining rights for fast-food workers, but the unionizing effort was muted Thursday in Kansas City. Instead, speakers focused on workers’ struggle to pay bills on fast-food wages.
The average pay for an estimated 26,000 fast-food employees in the Kansas City area is $8.60 an hour, or about $9.50 an hour less than what an academic study says is needed for a full-time worker to cover basic living expenses in this area. Labor advocates say relatively few fast-food workers get 40 hours a week, so their pay-vs.-expenses shortfall is worse.
Louis Rodemann, a staff member at Holy Family Catholic Worker House, said he participated in the rally because “many of the guests who come for our meals are working at these fast-food places but can’t afford to feed their families.”
Thursday’s wage rallies around the country, which included marches through cities and walkouts by some fast-food workers, prompted several organizations to reiterate their opposition to higher pay for entry-level employees.
The Employment Policies Institute said in a new report that $15-an-hour pay would cause restaurant operators to replace employees with automated alternatives, such as self-ordering kiosks and automated burger makers.
The employer-sponsored research institute also said big raises would result in job losses. It estimated that 460,000 workers who hold fast-food jobs as “primary employment” would lose those jobs if base pay rose to $15 an hour. It said nearly 9,000 of those jobs could be lost in Missouri and about 4,700 in Kansas.
The International Franchise Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also weighed in, saying wage increases would cause reduced hours for workers, scaled-back worker training and higher prices for consumers.
A chamber-backed survey found that even $9 an hour would cause 68 percent of “franchise decision-makers” to make “adverse personnel decisions.” Many fast-food restaurants are operated by franchisees with thin profit margins.
Labor unions, which this year represent only about 7 percent of private-sector workers, have focused organizing efforts on the fast food industry as well as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. This year’s efforts have included worker walkouts at Wal-Marts around the country, including Black Friday protests.
Nationally, the Service Employees International Union has led the movement. In the Kansas City area, the United Auto Workers, the Communications Workers of America, the American Federation of Teachers and other AFL-CIO members, are members of the Workers Organizing Committee, formed in May to lead the fast-food efforts.
Committee members include several community groups and social justice organizations, including Communities Creating Opportunity, Jobs With Justice, the Cross Border Network, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Kansas City Branch, and the Midwest Center for Equality and Democracy. Combined, the groups have staged a series of worker protests under the banner of Stand Up KC.
Committee members point to an academic study this year that said low-paid workers in the fast-food industry are costing U.S. taxpayers about $7 billion a year because they are forced to get public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid. Opponents counter that many fast-food workers are teenagers who don’t use public aid.
The Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr., senior pastor of Second Baptist Church, said it is unjust for “many to benefit and profit from the hard work of these workers” and “the richest country in the world can do better.”
One of the sign bearers in front of McDonald’s, Bobby Bingham, said he braved the cold because “every human deserves a living wage.” The 37-year-old, who holds a liberal arts degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said he currently works 70 to 80 hours a week in four part-time jobs, including a fast-food position at a Jimmy John’s.
“I make enough to get by,” Bingham said, “but I didn’t expect to find myself in these low-paying jobs.”