From Fighting for $15 to Blocking Right to Work, Striking Missouri Workers Are Challenging the GOP

Carlos Ballesteros

Terrence Wise, McDonald's worker and Stand Up KC leader, addresses the crowd at the march and strike for Fight For 15 and union rights and justice

KANSAS CITY, MO.—Bill Thomp­son, 46, grew up believ­ing in the Amer­i­can Dream. When he grad­u­at­ed from col­lege in 1995 with an engi­neer­ing degree, he assumed he would have no trou­ble cov­er­ing his bills along with the mid­dle-class niceties his father, a postal clerk and mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union, was able to pro­vide to his fam­i­ly grow­ing up.

Thomp­son was hired by a local engi­neer­ing firm out of col­lege, but his train­ing was soon ren­dered obso­lete by new tech­nolo­gies and he lost his job. With $46,000 in stu­dent debt and two young chil­dren to sup­port, he was in need of a job — any job. So, he turned to fast food.

Thomp­son made $8.50 an hour at his first job in the indus­try, work­ing at a now defunct chain of buf­fets. That was 1997. Today, he makes $9.10 as a cook at a Burg­er King just out­side the city limits.

$9.10 an hour isn’t enough to pay my bills,” he says. The last time I saw a doc­tor was when I was 15 years old. My teeth are rot­ting. I can’t see much any­more. I can’t afford the med­ical atten­tion I need.”

When asked why he decid­ed to join the move­ment to raise the min­i­mum wage in Kansas City two years ago, Thomp­son kept it short. I’m fight­ing for my life,” he said.

Yes­ter­day, Thomp­son and thou­sands of his fel­low low-wage work­ers in more than 400 cities nation­wide went on a one-day strike. Their key demands remain straight­for­ward: a raise and a union.

Five years into the Fight for $15, there’s a new objec­tive in bat­tle­ground states like Mis­souri: oust the politi­cians prop­a­gat­ing local anti-union laws. The Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union, which backs the Fight for $15, announced in August that it is launch­ing a new cam­paign to unseat GOP gov­er­nors and oth­er elect­ed offi­cials who oppose min­i­mum wage increas­es and union rights. 

Kansas City has already won a wage increase once this year: In ear­ly August, 69 per­cent of vot­ers backed a res­o­lu­tion rais­ing the city’s min­i­mum wage to $10 an hour on August 24, and $15 by 2022.

But that raise last­ed for just four days. On August 28, a new state law took effect that effec­tive­ly can­celed Kansas City’s wage increase, as well as a sim­i­lar mea­sures in St. Louis. The law, passed in May by Mis­souri’s GOP-con­trolled state leg­is­la­ture, pro­hibits cities from rais­ing their min­i­mum wages above that of the state min­i­mum of $7.70 an hour. The mea­sure is one of dozens of so-called pre-emp­tion laws” that GOP-dom­i­nat­ed state leg­is­la­tures have passed in order to block blue cities from pur­su­ing pro­gres­sive mea­sures like min­i­mum wage hikes and paid sick days. 

Kansas City’s brief vic­to­ry instilled hope in work­ers, as well as frus­tra­tion. Con­gress­man Emanuel Cleaver II (D‑Mo.), who spoke at the ral­ly, com­pared the road­blocks fac­ing low-wage work­ers face in Mis­souri to the 1974 Rum­ble in the Jun­gle, when Muham­mad Ali defeat­ed George Fore­man in their his­toric bout in Zaïre.

When they asked Ali how he man­aged to take all of Foreman’s punch­es, he said he kept telling him­self that if he last­ed just one more round, Fore­man would tire him­self out,” Cleaver told the crowd. It’s obvi­ous we’ve won the nar­ra­tive of why we need to raise the min­i­mum wage in Kansas City. All we got to do now is lace up and fight one more round!”

But labor is fight­ing on more than one front in Mis­souri, which in Feb­ru­ary became the 28th state to pass a so-called right to work law. The bat­tle’s not over yet: In August, a coali­tion of labor groups, led by the Mis­souri AFL-CIO, sub­mit­ted more than 300,000 sig­na­tures in an effort to put the anti-union mea­sure up for a vote on the Novem­ber 2018 ballot. 

The mount­ing list of anti-union mea­sures in Mis­souri also includes Sen­ate Bill 43, a law passed in June that will increase the bar­ri­ers for work­ers fil­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suits against their for­mer employ­ers. In response, the Mis­souri chap­ter of the NAACP issued a mock trav­el advi­so­ry, warn­ing away women, minori­ties and LGBTQ peo­ple from com­ing to Missouri. 

The trav­el advi­so­ry lets peo­ple know they are enter­ing a place where their civ­il rights may not be respect­ed,” says Mis­souri NAACP pres­i­dent Rod Chapel, Jr. The strike [on Labor Day] reflects the same kinds of warn­ings, but for work­ers — that their rights as work­ers to assem­ble, union­ize and demand a fair wage are not respect­ed here.”

Immi­grant work­ers, who make an aver­age of $150 a week less than their cit­i­zen coun­ter­parts, marched yes­ter­day with anoth­er threat on their minds: Don­ald Trump’s loom­ing announce­ment that he plans to end Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals (DACA), a work per­mit pro­gram for unau­tho­rized immi­grants who arrived to the Unit­ed States as children. 

Maria*, a fast-food work­er and unau­tho­rized immi­grant, was among those on strike yes­ter­day. She has been in the U.S. for more than 20 years and cur­rent­ly makes $10.20 an hour at Burg­er King. (She is iden­ti­fied by a pseu­do­nym because of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of retal­i­a­tion by immi­gra­tion enforce­ment offi­cials.) Her son, whom she brought to the U.S. when he was a tod­dler, has been grant­ed DACA. Maria fears what might hap­pen next. Though she has a great deal on her mind, she says, she wasn’t going to miss out on the day’s protest.

I’ve been with the move­ment for three years now, and I’m going to keep fight­ing until we get what we deserve,” she says. I’m not going to stop fight­ing because I am scared. It is this — my fel­low work­ers, march­ing togeth­er, that reminds me that I am not alone, and that we can win.”

Car­los Balles­teros is a free­lance writer based in Chica­go. He was born and raised in the South Side and recent­ly grad­u­at­ed from Clare­mont McKen­na Col­lege with a B.A. in History.
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