Guest Commentary

For many people, the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage is a matter of life and death

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The group Stand Up KC helped organize this protest march last year calling for a $15 per hour minimum wage and a union. Amber Whitelow, an employee at McDonald’s, joined in the event.
The group Stand Up KC helped organize this protest march last year calling for a $15 per hour minimum wage and a union. Amber Whitelow, an employee at McDonald’s, joined in the event. deulitt@kcstar.com

Before the presidential debate this month in St. Louis, I didn’t attend church as I normally do. I didn’t prepare meals for the week ahead, or call into the Kansas City Popeyes where I work to see if there were extra shifts available.

Instead, I traveled four hours to join hundreds of other underpaid workers outside the presidential debate to deliver a message to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: Our fight for $15 per hour and union rights isn’t a matter of partisan divide between left and right. It’s a matter of right and wrong — and for the 64 million workers like me who aren’t paid $15 an hour or who don’t have access to union rights, it’s about life and death, too.

Never has our message felt more critical than it did this past month, when a Kansas City fast-food worker and leader in the Fight for $15, Myrna De Los Santos, died at age 49 because she didn’t have health care and couldn’t afford to treat her diabetes.

Since joining the Fight for $15 two years ago, Myrna had symbolized strength and resilience for me and many others. She was a night-shift manager at a McDonald’s for nearly five years making just $9 per hour, until low pay and failing health forced her to quit four months ago. Myrna was barely able to pay for basic necessities — like heat and rent — much less treatment for her diabetes. Without a car, many people used to see her walking to and from work in the harshest weather.

Even though her life was full of struggle, she never wore it on her face. Myrna wasn’t born an activist — in fact, she voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. But she went on strike, and it changed her life.

She became a leader in Stand Up KC and was always in the front of our strike lines. Sick as she was, she traveled from Kansas City to Richmond, Va., in mid-August to join thousands of underpaid workers at the Fight for $15 National Convention.

She was also a person of deep faith and went to church every Sunday. She held an associate degree and was passionate about American history, regularly volunteering at the Harry Truman museum.

Myrna’s death was as heartbreaking as it was avoidable. She died too soon because McDonald’s didn’t pay her enough to treat her diabetes, and because Missouri’s General Assembly denied her the wage hike and access to health care that might have saved her life. Myrna would have received Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but Republican state lawmakers blocked a proposed Medicaid expansion in 2013. Last year, the legislature also prevented Kansas City from raising the minimum wage here to $13 per hour.

Myrna’s death is proof that who we elect can make all the difference for people already living on the edge.

I’m devastated by the loss of my friend, but I’m also afraid for myself as a cashier at Popeyes who supports two children. Like Myrna, I have health troubles, including high blood pressure. But on $9.50 per hour, I can’t begin to afford the medicine to treat it. I’m fighting for $15 and union rights not just for Myrna and her memory, but also so that I don’t meet her fate and leave my children alone.

I dedicated my protest to Myrna that day in St. Louis. But dedicating a day isn’t enough. We’re going to dedicate ourselves to electing candidates who can lead Americans out of poverty and guarantee workplace rights to ensure that Myrna’s story doesn’t become our own.

Fran Marion is a single mother of two and a Kansas City Popeyes shift manager earning $9.50 per hour, leaving her family with financial difficulties. She’s also a leader within Stand Up KC and a member of the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee.

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