Calls for human rights blended with higher wage demands at Fight for $15 rallies staged Tuesday at four locations in Kansas City.
The events were part of a national day of protest on the fourth anniversary of walkouts in New York City by fast-food workers protesting low pay.
At many of the events, speakers expressed fear that minimum wage progress as well as civil rights may be jeopardized under President Donald Trump’s administration.
Rallies were held in more than 300 cities around the country and included airport workers, Uber drivers, child care and elder care workers, adjunct professors, and others demanding higher wages for the jobs they do. Many speakers broadened the movement’s goals to include safety and financial security for all Americans.
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Speakers at the largest Kansas City rally, held at 5 p.m. at 63rd Street and the Paseo, asked for freedom, equality and justice for immigrants, women, African-Americans, Muslims, members of the LGBT community and others whose “reality on the ground” missed the mark compared to American ideals.
The Rev. Susan McCann, an Episcopalian minister, was among those who said the nation owes a debt to the courageous workers who should know that “we stand together.”
Hundreds of protesters, about 110 of them with yellow armbands signaling their willingness to be arrested for civil disobedience, marched from the Paseo to Meyer and Troost, where they blocked the street outside a McDonald’s restaurant. They peacefully sat in the intersection, singing, “We shall not be moved,” until they were escorted to paddy wagons to be taken downtown.
Bridget Hughes, a fast-food worker and mother of four, said she chose to take a stand and be arrested “to show the world that working people are united.”
The rest of the crowd remained on the sidewalk, holding signs that said, “Workers need livable wages, regular hours, full benefits,” among other slogans.
The evening rally drew repeated honks of support from passing traffic, except for yells from one man who got out of his truck to repeatedly yell, “Get a better job.”
The man, who identified himself as John Bardgett, said he works construction jobs with PeopleReady for $8 an hour — about what many fast-food workers earn — but he said, “If you don’t like what you got, get a better job.”
Earlier in the day, a small group of students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City joined a few dozen low-wage workers in front of the student union.
“This is a rally for human rights because, ultimately, we’re all human,” said Fatima Mohamed, a junior at UMKC, who said she participated because “everything brings me here. … I’m African-American, Muslim, a woman … it all affects me. But we’re fighting for everyone’s rights.”
The campus gathering also included shouts against President-elect Trump and declarations that “this is what democracy looks like.”
The campus rally followed a 6 a.m. protest staged by fast-food and other low-wage workers at two midtown Kansas City fast-food restaurants.
Tuesday’s rally was as much a protest as it was a celebration, said Andrew McConnell, a McDonald’s employee, because workers have won pay raises across the country since the labor-backed movement began. Organizers included the Service Employees International Union.
Donna Simon, pastor at St. Mark Hope and Peace, said she attends the rallies because “we are living in a time of an unprecedented gap between the richest and the poorest people in this country,” she said. “No one can live on $15,000 a year.”
The Fight for $15 protests gained heat in reaction to the recent presidential election. Organizers said many participants intended to risk arrest throughout the day to convey the message that “we aren’t going anywhere.”
Political observers said federal minimum wage increases are problematic. Larry Mishel, president of the labor-oriented Economic Policy Institute, said the incoming Congress “appears set on passing draconian economic laws meant to benefit Wall Street and big business at the expense of working families.”
The employer-oriented Employment Policies Institute countered that higher pay will result in job loss by the protesting workers. The organization says higher pay would raise consumer prices and reduce employment for the least-skilled workers.
Glenn Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, charged hypocrisy by union organizers in that “SEIU itself fails to walk the walk on paying $15 an hour and honoring union organizing rights.”
Since the wage-and-unionization movement began, several major employers have raised some rates of compensation. Other workers have won raises through collective bargaining, higher state minimum wage laws, or the voting booth. On Nov. 8, voters in four states and one city approved minimum wage increases to between $12 and $15 an hour over time.
Several major Fight for $15 protests have been in Kansas City since mid-2013, at least one of which included a sit-down near a McDonald’s that led to some participants’ arrests.
McDonald’s spokeswoman Terri Hickey responded, “We take seriously our role in helping strengthen communities as we and our franchisees separately employ hundreds of thousands of people, providing many with their very first job. In addition we offer McDonald’s employees the opportunity to develop the valuable skills necessary to build successful careers even beyond our restaurants.”