Update: Gina Chiala, spokesperson for Stand Up KC, the group spearheading the two-day employee strike in dozens of fast-food restaurants in the Kansas City area (there are no planned walkouts in Kansas, Chiala said) can't give even a rough estimate of how many local restaurant employees are scheduled to walk off their jobs tomorrow but said that "every major fast-food chain will be represented." The strike, she said, "is intended to inspire other local food-industry workers to fight for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize." This blog has been updated to include additional information from organizers of the strike.
There wasn't much lunchtime drive-through business at the Burger King restaurant at 1102 East 47th Street. The parking lot and the adjacent stretch of Troost were full: three police cars, at least four dozen protesters in red shirts printed with "Stand Up KC," camera crews and reporters from most of the local TV stations, a few print reporters, and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II.
"My father was a restaurant worker who made 25 cents an hour in 1938," he told the enthusiastic crowd. "Minimum wage has only risen $7 in 74 years."
Inside the Burger King, manager Nia Cline and a skeleton crew of assistant managers were selling burgers and sodas to the dozen or so customers who seemed fascinated by the commotion outside the restaurant.
"Only one worker didn't show up today," Cline told me, "because we knew what was coming and didn't have any other staff scheduled for today. We were open for business this morning, and things are going just fine."
Tomorrow might be a different story.
Today marked a symbolic strike for Kansas City's fast-food employees. Tomorrow, according to the team behind the strike - Workers Organizing Committee of Kansas City - the real strike is scheduled. Strikes are also set to take place in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and Flint, Michigan.
A fast-food worker happy to use his own name, Terrence Wise, took the podium to tell his story: He's a veteran of fast-food work, currently holding down two fast-food jobs, Burger King for two years and Pizza Hut for eight.
"My fiancee and I still can't support our family," Wise said. "Sometimes I don't see my children for two consecutive days. Fast-food wages are extremely low, and benefits and insurance don't exist."
The two-day strike calls for a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour and the right for fast-food workers to unionize.
Not all of the red-shirted protesters were food workers. Kim Clause told me that she works for a teachers union, but was there in support of the strikers.
"These people are our friends and neighbors...they're our parents," she said.
Update: One of the points that seems to be a sticking point for critics of the strike is that $15 an hour sounds too high for a mostly unskilled labor force. Gina Chiala responded: "A recent economic study found that a living wage in Kansas City - money to pay bills, pay rent, not to be living on the edge - is at least $17 an hour. Shouldn't these workers be entitled to a living wage? The CEO of McDonald's earned a 14 million dollar paycheck last year. Shouldn't some of McDonald's 6 billion dollar profit help their workers instead of threatening to pass any additional costs to the consumers and start charging $15 for a hamburger."
A man with a bullhorn exhorted the crowd to shout with him: "Fifteen dollars and a union...now!"
As a former restaurant worker, I'd love to see fast-food workers - and all restaurant personnel - get deservedly higher wages and the right to unionize. There used to be, as late as the 1940s, a waiters union in Kansas City with offices downtown.
Is it time for history to repeat itself? Yes.