For McDonald’s employee Kenya Banks, the “Fight for $15 and a Union” movement isn’t about being paid a living wage — it is about life and death.
How her brush with death back in April — collapsing to the floor and bleeding behind the counter at the midtown restaurant in Kansas City — spurred her Monday morning to join more than 300 rallying protestors at 33rd Street and Southwest Boulevard to call for better pay and treatment of low-wage workers.
The protestors, many scheduled to work but nonetheless striking on Labor Day from fast-food and other jobs, waved American flags and carried placards reading “Unionize,” “Rigged Economy,” “Broken Politics.”
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Banks, who spoke privately before taking the stage for the 9 a.m. rally and planned march, told how she has worked at various fast-food restaurants for more than 20 years and yet gets no benefits and earns $8.75 an hour, a bit more than a dollar over the state $7.70 minimum wage. Age 43, she has three adults children and two grandchildren.
Rushed to the emergency room in April, she discovered that she was bleeding profusely from fibroid tumors that riddled her stomach and uterus. Doctors ordered a blood transfusion and recommended an operation.
“When they told me I needed a hysterectomy,” said Banks, “I told them I couldn’t afford a hysterectomy because I don’t have insurance.”
She refused the treatment and, in May, she bled out again. “I was going to die,” Banks said.
Doctors this time performed an emergency hysterectomy. Banks said she gets bills, but has no way to pay them. Nor, she said, can she afford pay for the antibiotics that the doctors prescribed. Her insides are inflamed. Although doctors said she needed to be off for six weeks after her operation, she went back after two because she needed the paycheck.
Work offers no paid sick time, which is among the reasons she joined Monday’s strike and rally.
“It’s about having a union,” Banks said. “It’s about getting things done together that we cannot do alone.”
Meantime, near the rear of the amassed crowd, 55-year-old Sharon Parker, who has worked at various Burger King restaurants for 25 years, sat resting on a tree stump while wearing a white surgical mask over her mouth.
She had all of her teeth removed within the last month, paying $200 up front to cover part of the bill. Plagued by infections and other dental issues, Parker has never had dental insurance and couldn’t pay for preventive dental care on her own. Now she’s waiting on dentures she also can’t afford.
“I’m a dedicated worker. I’m a hard worker,” said Parker, who said a union is needed to bargain for worker’s benefits, such as medical and dental plans, paid sick leave or vacation days, none of which she has.
The “Fight for $15 and a Union” movement has expanded greatly in the five years since it began in 2012. What started when fast-food workers in New York City walked off their jobs in the hunt for better wages and treatment has grown into an international effort in 300 cities on six continents.
Labor Day strikes and rallies similar to Kansas City’s, organized by the local group Stand Up KC, are being held across the country.
Beyond attracting fast-food workers, the cry to pay a minimum $15 an hour as a “living wage” and to offer medical benefits, paid vacation or sick time has also pulled in low-wage workers at airports, nursing homes, home health care companies and childcare facilities.
On Aug. 8, 69 percent of Kansas City voters overwhelmingly supported a measure to increase the city’s minimum wage to $10. That vote, however, was considered largely symbolic as Republican-majority lawmakers in Jefferson City had already, in May, passed state legislation blocking cities from raising their minimum wages above the state’s $7.70 level.
Organizers, nonetheless, credit the movement for raising the wages of some 22 million workers over the last five years.
Recent victories claimed include:
▪ Duke University’s agreement in August to pay minimum wage employees $15 an hour by July 2019, more than double the state’s current $7.25.
▪ Minneapolis in June became the first Midwestern city to adopt a $15 an hour minimum wage by 2024, raising pay for an estimated 71,000 workers
▪ In July, Democrats made $15 an hour a central piece of their “Better Deal” plan while $15 an hour has become the minimum in states that include states and cities such as New York, California, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
▪ Facebook, Aetna, Amalgamated Bank, JP Morgan Chase & Co., and Nationwide Insurance each announced plans to increase their minimum wages to $15 an hour for various workers.
Six Missouri state representatives, all Democrats, from the Kansas City area spoke in support at the rally. They were Rep. Judy Morgan of District 24, Rep. DaRon McGee of District 36, Rep. Jon Carpenter of District 15, Rep. Ingrid Burnett of District 19, Rep. Lauren Arthur of District 18 and Rep. Jerome Barnes of District 28.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat and former Kansas City mayor, now representing the Missouri’s 5th District, fired up the crowd, invoking a story of grit and determination from world champion boxer Muhammad Ali.
He spoke of Ali’s famous 1974 victory over George Foreman in Zaire, Africa, the famed “Rumble in the Jungle.”
“I want you to understand,” Cleaver said. “Ali was asked once, ‘When you were fighting Foreman, he was beating you to death. How did you go back and fight again?’ He said after every round he would go back to his corner. All he was thinking was, ‘One more round. I know it looks bad now, and my arms are hurting, but if can just go one more round.’”
Cleaver told the crowd that voters are supportive of a higher minimum wage.
“What we have to keep in mind is that no matter how many times they kick us down, we got to get up and go at least one more round.”
The crowd erupted.
“Every time you do something to us, we stand up and go one more round!” he said. His voice rose.
“Because if we can fight and fight and fight and fight and get up and go one more round, we’re going to win,” Cleaver said. “It may not be tomorrow. It might not be the next day. It might not even be next year, but we will win. The minimum wage will rise, because you stood up!
“And I’m going to fight it. I’m going to fight those who are keeping the minimum wage down. I’m going to hit until my fists are gone. And then when they’re gone, I’m going to wave my arms at ’em. And when they’re gone, I’m going to start kicking. And when my feet are gone, I’m going to get down and start biting them.”
When his teeth were gone, he said he would gum them into submission.
“One more round!” Cleaver cried. “That’s what this is today. One. More. Round. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. One more round!”
Not long after, with a few more speeches made, the throng was on its feet, marching east across Linwood Boulevard toward Broadway and Main streets and toward the McDonald’s where Kenya Banks had once collapsed.