Cherith Brook Advent 2015
When Workers Take a Stand
By Caleb Madison
In May of 2013, Stand Up KC, a local branch of the $15 for all movement, held it’s first meeting to fight for a $15 minimum wage here in Kansas City. Two years after this initial meeting, in July of 015, KC City Council adopted a minimum wage ordinance in a 12-1 vote which would set the new minimum wage of Kansas City to be $13 by 2020 with an increase based on cost of living and inflation expenses. And now, in October of 2015, this very same ordinance has been repealed in a vote by the City Council (7-4). So what happened? The following is a brief glimpse into the winding road that the minimum wage debate has careened through in our city.
Stand Up KC thrives on two cogs which make it so powerfully effective: the strength of their organizers and the voices of the workers who so frequently and eloquently speak out. After the inception of this organization in 2013; dozens of marches, actions, protests, petitions, and letters have been created and led so as to raise the city’s awareness of the grief of the underpaid labourer. Stand Up KC also has wonderful ideals towards collaborative organizing and has worked with groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the American Friends Service Committee, Missouri Faith Voices, and a wide group of local and national denominations and congregations. Stand Up KC and their allies have so excelled in their work that the city not only became aware of the fast food and childcare worker’s plight, but has also been influenced to do something to change it. In the large and sweeping series of marches ranging from 20 people to 600 hosted by Stand Up, Kansas City has certainly come to acknowledge the power of so many workers uniting together to form a movement. While these marches were joined in by the other organizations and partially hosted by them, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began it’s work on a petition that would eventually have 4,000 signatures to put a $15/hr by 2020 vote on the August ballot in Kansas City. In order to understand what comes next, we have to look a bit at the voting in Missouri’s State Legislature and HB 722.
HB 722 was a bill introduced in early 2015 to the Missouri House of Representatives that disallowed cities and local counties from passing individual worker’s benefit packages and local minimum wage changes outside the federal or state minimum wage and benefit levels. This effectively means that only the Missouri House of Representatives can add new benefits or change the minimum wage, and these effects, unless otherwise noted, would have to be statewide measures. This presents a serious problem for a local ordinance to come into effect: it would have to be completely enacted and unchallenged by August 28th, 2015; which is before HB 722 would be able to come into effect statewide. Governor Jay Nixon at the outset opposed this measure and vetoed, saying that HB 722 offered “...a clear example of government intrusion...” and “...interference with the policy making of local governments and the principle of local control”. Gov. Nixon’s veto was overridden by a vote from the House of Reps, and thus a very tight deadline was placed on Kansas City to enact its’ new local wage.
Our City Council thus began a period of discernment in mid-July, spending much time hearing from both proponents and dissenters towards the proposed $15 by 2020. Most of the conversation was not centered around whether the increase was a good idea; it was unanimous both in voting and speaking that a minimum wage increase was necessary to improve the lives of workers in Kansas City. The concern presented most was the logistics of enacting this ordinance and still allowing a thorough enough conversation and understanding of implications by the August 28th deadline brought on by HB 722.
Not only was this piece of the ordinance in contention, but also the number and date of the gradual increase. For instance, numbers like $13 by 2023, $15 by 2023, and 10$ by 2018 were all presented as viable options by various council members at various times. During these debates, Stand Up KC and leaders in their ally movements enacted a hunger strike rotation and an occupation time outside of City Hall where daily people were refusing the comforts of food and home in order to stand in solidarity with underpaid workers. The vote for $13 by 2020 passed with a voting of 12-1. The only naysayer was Ed Ford, who said that the increase was too much, too fast, and didn’t want to instill false hopes with GB 722 hanging in the balance. Cheers erupted from a crowd of workers outside; hugs were shared and the celebratory pulse of a better wage was felt throughout Kansas City. The celebration ended up being rather short lived though as a new petition came into fruition, this time enacted by the business group “Missourians for Fair Wages”. David Jackson, the spokesperson for Missourians for Fair Wages, argued that this minimum wage raise would stop an influx of high-paying jobs into Kansas City and ultimately hurt working people rather than help them. Missourians for fair wages initiated what they have liked to call a “people’s veto”, in which they accrued enough signatures (in this case, 4,000) on a petition to put the minimum wage measure on the November ballot. Now, if we remember back to HB 722, this measured had to be completely enacted and written in before August 28th, 2015 in order to take effect. Pushing this back to a November ballot measure nullifies the ability to vote on it: if the people of Kansas City did indeed want a minimum wage increase it can’t happen with the passing of HB 722 (except on a state level). This wasn’t a people’s veto, it was a lobbyist group snuffing out thousands of worker’s hopes and labor. This unfortunately brings us to last week’s vote to overturn the minimum wage ordinance, and bring us right back down to $7.65 in our fair state of Missouri.
So where do we go from here? As sure as there is blood in our veins, we do not give up the fight to honor the worker’s labor. If the story of this article has frustrated you, as it well should, I encourage you to do something. And something does not count as a facebook post with a frowning emoji, nor does it count as feeling sorry for our city’s dissension towards a fair wage. It means showing up. It means making a little noise. It means telling this council and the state of Missouri and the business and restaurant lobbyists that this is not okay. As the state motto says: “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law of the land.”; and we the people certainly need a higher wage to fare well.
|Workers march on 12th Street in downtown Kansas City, MO on November 11, 2015|