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Missouri Poor People's Campaign rallies in state capital after KC warmup; 76 arrested

Protesters descended on fast food restaurants Monday on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard before leaving for Jefferson City, where the Missouri Poor People’s Campaign has protested for the past five Mondays.
Protesters descended on fast food restaurants Monday on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard before leaving for Jefferson City, where the Missouri Poor People’s Campaign has protested for the past five Mondays. emckinley@kcstar.com

About 75 people were arrested Monday in the last of five planned protests in Jefferson City by the Missouri Poor People's Campaign.

The protesters, who blocked streets in the capital, called for an increased minimum wage, stronger unions and more equitable policies to help the state's impoverished. Similar protests have been taking place across the country. The original Poor People's Campaign was started by Martin Luther King in 1968.

For protesters from Kansas City, the day started at dawn, as they gathered near a McDonald's on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard before leaving for Jefferson City.

Bridget Hughes, one of the participants, waited with her son Desi just before 6 a.m. as marchers approached the restaurant.

"Hey hey! Ho ho! These poverty wages got to go!" demanded a voice with a megaphone, and about 200 voices echoed the call. The crowd, a diverse group, both by race and age, wore red T-shirts reading "STAND UP KC" and "WE ARE WORTH MORE."

The campaign's stated goal was to build on the work of King by using protests and civil disobedience to fight poverty, racism, militarism and ecological destruction. Marchers held signs depicting King, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez, and they channeled King's voice in their chants and speeches.

Hughes, 27, is a mother of three. She works at McDonald's, and her husband is a cashier at a gas station. Her family would not be able to get by without public subsidies, she said. She is barely able to feed her children at night.

"I am living proof that the minimum wage is not enough to survive on," she said.

The volume of the rally rose as the sun did. The crowd started with a march around the McDonald's, then there were several speeches and a church choir director led the group in song.

The most common rallying cry throughout was "$15 and a union," referring to the minimum wage and the effort to repeal Missouri's right-to-work law, which allows workers to opt-out of paying union dues.

Fran Marion, who works at Popeyes, spoke second at the rally. Last year she was homeless and separated from her children because she didn't have the money to keep the family together under the same roof.

"We deserve better," she said. "We are worth more."

Kansas City approved a $10 minimum wage in 2015, to be raised incrementally until it reached $15 in 2022. But the Missouri General Assembly voted to restrict cities from raising minimum wages beyond the state's, which is $7.70. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 for nine years.

"If Jeff City didn't steal Kansas City's minimum wage away in 2015, it would be $11 an hour. That's not enough, but it's a step in the right direction," Marion said.

MIT researchers calculate a living wage in Kansas City for a single mother with two children to be about $27 an hour, she said.

Those who argue against raising minimum wages say that it could encourage automation and get rid of jobs, raise prices of goods, disproportionally hurt local businesses with smaller margins than large corporations and encourage companies to cut workers' hours or benefits. Some also argue that doing so is arbitrary and not based on any economic analysis.

Protesters also called for stronger labor in Missouri.

"The best anti-poverty program I know is a union,” Marion said, quoting King, and "right to work destroys unions."

Missouri's right-to-work law was signed by former Gov. Eric Greitens last year.

Proponents of right to work believe it helps businesses and drives job creation. They point to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that show states with right-to-work laws had higher rates of job growth than states without them from 2005 to 2015.

Labor organizers gathered more than 300,000 signatures to force a statewide vote on the state’s right-to-work law, and both sides have raised millions to fight for their positions. The vote is set for August.

Pat Hayes, 68, was a workplace safety rep for the Local 249 union for 25 years.

"We give workers a voice on the job," Hayes, speaking after the rally, said of unions. "Otherwise, the workplace is basically a dictatorship. You surrender your rights as an American citizen the minute you punch-in at work."

Jefferson City police said 76 people were arrested Monday. Citations for obstructing police would be given to protesters who block streets or ignore police instructions, said Lt. David Williams of the Jefferson City Police Department before the protests. The citations carry a maximum fine of $1,000 or 90 days in jail, said Lindsey Sullivan, an administrator at the city's municipal court.

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