Serving up life: Voices of KC’s minimum wage, fast-food workers come to local stage

Minimum wage worker talks about living in a van

Terrence Wise describes living in a van with his family while working at Burger King. Wise is delivering his monologue as part of the growing "Fight for $15 and a Union" movement.
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Terrence Wise describes living in a van with his family while working at Burger King. Wise is delivering his monologue as part of the growing "Fight for $15 and a Union" movement.

Their voices as minimum wage workers have been heard through bullhorns and chanting in picket-line protests, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. These poverty wages have got to go!”

On Thursday evening, seven local Kansas City area fast-food workers will take the stage at the Buffalo Room in the Westport Flea Market to deliver their stories in a more intimate fashion: as dramatic personal monologues. The event, entitled “Living on the Edge,” will feature protesters involved in the “Fight for $15 and a Union” movement.

“Right now it’s cold. It’s really cold. It’s Kansas City cold,” begins the story by Terrence Wise, 37, a local and national leader in the movement. His monologue, “Kansas City Cold,” described a night years ago when he, his fiancée and three daughters lived homeless in a van parked outside the Burger King where he worked nearly full time.

“In the rear view mirror, I can see my possessions — all of our possessions — piled high in the back of the van,” he recites. Behind him in the rear seat are his three hungry daughters. One daughter puts her feet under his coat, next to his skin, to keep warm. As asthmatic daughter struggles to breathe as an older daughter and a baby weep.

“My family — no family — should have to endure these conditions,” he says. Wise currently works at a local McDonald’s.

Another monologue, “Chicken Wings,” by Fran Marion, 37, describes the joy of making her family its favorite meal of chicken wings, macaroni and cheese, salad and Kool-Aid.

“It entails a happy moment in a family and how it can all change,” Marion said in a telephone interview. “I was able to go from cooking a full-course meal to one night not knowing how I’m going to feed my children.”

Marion currently works two full-time jobs, 16 hours each day, working by day at a Popeye’s Louisiana Chicken for about $9.50 an hour and as a janitor at night. She has two children, ages 14 and 15, and a partner.

The monologue project began about six months ago, initiated by Stand Up KC, the local umbrella group that is part of the larger, national Fight for $15 and a Union movement. Once each week, on a Sunday, volunteers that included college students worked with a class of about 10 fast-food workers to hone their stories into stage monologues as an alternative way of getting out their message.

“Sometimes it’s not about being on the picket line and giving speeches,” said Marion, who said she joined the movement and began picketing about six months ago. “Sometimes you’ve got to tell them about your life. I hope people hear and feel that this is an everyday struggle. This is not something we’re making up. This is our lives every day.”

The overall movement is pushing for a $15 hourly minimum wage and unionization, holding that the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is not a living wage. They hold that, even for those who work full time at 40 hours each week — and many are given fewer — the $290 of wages that earns before tax is not near enough to support the basic necessities of life such as rent, food, heat, gas, hot water or clothing without the use of government programs, such as food stamps and rent subsidies.

Thursday’s program, scheduled from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Buffalo Room, 817 Westport Rd., is sold out. But it can also be seen as a Facebook Live broadcast on Stand Up KC’s page.

“It’s one thing for a lot of allies to carry signs to say workers need a raise,” said the Rev. Donna Simon, 52, a supporter of the movement and the senior pastor at Saint Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church, 3800 Troost Ave. “It is a much more powerful thing for the workers to say why they need a raise — stories of living in your car or whether to choose to pay the gas bill or get shoes for your kids.”

The movement, which began in New York City in 2012 when a number of workers walked off the job, has made what its adherents see as significant gains. Not the least of which is increased national awareness and the gradual increase of the minimum wage to $15 in numerous cities. In 2013, seven cities in the United States, including Kansas City, held protests calling for an increased minimum wage.

The movement now claims to have expanded to more than 300 cities in seven countries.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler