Activism Among Low-Wage Workers In Kansas City Echoes Successful Movements, Expert Says

Feb 5, 2018

Work hard and you’ll be successful, is how the old adage of the American Dream goes.

But the members of one Kansas City organization are adding their voices to a national movement arguing that’s not really the case, and they're emerging from some of America's lowest-paying industries to do it.

With a minimum wage of $7.70 an hour in Missouri and $7.25 in Kansas, a person working 40 hours a week in a low-wage job brings home about $16,000 in a year. Stand Up K.C., the local chapter in the so-called “Fight for $15,” is pushing for an increase in the minimum wage, and workers rights, nationwide.

This movement has garnered national and local attention during its five years of existence not only for Labor Day protests and summits at the White House, but for putting the people who are most affected by low wages behind the bullhorn.

Empowering people at their jobs can be a key to broader social justice movements, said Terrence Wise, a fast-food worker who joined KCUR's Brian Ellison on Up To Date to talk about the workers organizing for more benefits and more pay. 

"That's where most Americans wake up and go every day," Wise said of the workplace. "If we can build our strength in numbers in the workplace, then we have the ability to change everything."

Wise once introduced President Obama at the White House Worker Voice Summit. Other leaders in the Fight for $15 movement are home health aides, children's caregivers, and sanitation workers.

“We've accomplished a great deal and it's hard to look back because we've got so far to go,” Wise said. “But you’ve got to look back at what we've been able to do. For me, personally, I've been able to not only learn to organize my community and my co-workers but win respect in my workplace.”

Stand Up K.C. was one of the first seven chapters in this movement. It follows in the footsteps of other social movements that have been able to take root, said Rhiannon Dickerson, a UMKC lecturer on interpersonal and public communication.

“A lot of movements that have affected significant change, historically, have been led by folks like Terrence — by low-wage workers or by people of color and women,” she said. “In that regard, I think Stand-Up K.C. is in line with generations of effective advocacy.”

Dickinson, who also organizes a UMKC conference on civic and community engagement, said she encourages people who want to be more socially involved but aren't connected to a specific issue to seek out organizations already doing the work instead of spearheading something of their own.

“Centering the communities who are most affected by whatever it is, whatever injustice you're trying to overturn, is really essential,” she said.

She also cautioned allies to not do more more harm than good by wrestling away power. Her number-one tip? Listening. 

"Follow the leadership of folks who already know what they are doing," she said. "They know the issue firsthand."

Kansas City residents have an opportunity to listen to listen the stories of low-wage workers at a Stand Up K.C. event called Lives on the Line later this month. It is one of several programs the non-profit has cultivated to give low-wage workers access to more creative and educational training.

"The only way workers are going to win a union and win better pay is to organize their strength in numbers, that's number one," Wise said. "Number two is to stand up and tell their stories to win the hearts and minds of the American people."

Event tickets for low wage workers are free, and $16 for other attendees. More information about the event can be found on the group’s Facebook page.

Kathleen Pointer is an assistant producer for KCUR's Up To Date. Follow her on Twitter @kathleenpointer.