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Three days before Labor Day, the holiday honoring American workers, employees at the Taco Bell fast-food restaurant in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood walked off the job in the middle of the lunch hour.
The four shift workers walked into the embrace of dozens of protesters clad in bright red shirts reading Stand Up KC. The group advocates for better wages and work conditions for fast-food and retail workers. Outside of the Taco Bell at 8215 Wornall Road, members passed out signs reading “On Strike” and “Union Justice Now.”
Stand Up KC has organized similar protests at other fast-food franchises in the Kansas City region. The group pushes for service workers to be able to form unions.
“Not only do we want better wages and the right to form a union, we want to be respected on the job. We want to be treated like human beings,” said Terrence Wise, an organizer with Stand Up KC and a shift manager at the Wornall Road Taco Bell.
Workers at the restaurant said they walked off the job to protest low wages, lack of health care and other benefits, abuse from customers and management and other problems.
Wise said workers had relayed their concerns to Taco Bell’s corporate office, but received no response.
“We’ve been talking about what’s going on in the shop, and nothing’s changed,” he said. “This is a worker’s last resort here, to pull our labor power out of the store and show them that we’re serious.”
Employees walk out in response to safety concerns
After leaving the restaurant, employees joined protesters in the front parking lot for a rally, blocking vehicles from entering.
At the mic, Fran Marion, an opening shift manager and one of the employees who walked out of the store, recounted verbal abuse she experienced during the year she had worked at the restaurant.
“I can say that I have personally been called the N-word or some other racial epithet at least four different times since I’ve started working here,” Marion said.
She said she felt that the restaurant’s management showed little respect for her and her co-workers. A turning point for Marion occurred a few days before the rally. The opening crew came to work and discovered that the drink machine in the lobby had broken and flooded the restaurant floor.
“There was literally standing water throughout the store,” Marion said.
“Given the lack of structure and communication at the store, I was walking into a problem that I knew nothing about in advance.”
After messaging her general manager, the workers decided to lock the lobby doors to ensure customer safety. In response, Marion said, the manager wrote her up for insubordination and reprimanded her.
“She even said that she had felt like punching me, she was so angry with me,” Marion said.
“You know, a company has truly lost its way when workers are punished for reporting obvious workplace hazards.”
Asked about the concerns that workers voiced at the rally, Taco Bell corporate officials responded with an emailed statement.
“The safety and well-being of team members is our top priority at Taco Bell,” the statement said. “The franchise owner and operator of this location is currently looking into and working to address any team member concerns.”
In addition to improved working conditions, employees are also calling for a better benefits package. In Missouri, employers are not required to offer paid sick leave to employees. Workers at the Waldo Taco Bell do not receive health care benefits.
“They say they offer health care, but I don’t know anybody who works in the store who has health care from this company,” Marion said. “Most of us go without health care or are getting Medicaid, because we can’t afford to have anything else taken out of our checks.”
Marion said the stresses of working at the franchise had taken a toll on her health. “It’s not just the low pay or the lack of benefits. It’s the headaches. It’s the migraines,” she said. “I would tell people, I don’t work at Taco Bell. I work at taco hell.”
Wise, who has been a fast-food worker for 27 years, said he has had to deal with the deaths of co-workers over the years.
“I’ve gone to work with some of my co-workers, some days worked the whole shift, closed up, only to come to work the next day and my co-worker not be here anymore,” he said at the podium. Most recently, a co-worker died from a heart attack the night after they finished their shift together.
Many fast-food workers live in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where residents on the average live 15 to 20 years less than residents of the wealthiest ZIP codes.
According to the 2022-2027 Kansas City Community Health Improvement Plan, the 64128 ZIP code, on Kansas City’s east side, has the lowest life expectancy in the city — 68.1 years. The minority population of that area is 86.1%. The 64113 ZIP code, in the southwest corridor, has the highest life expectancy at 86.3 years, with a minority population of 13.7%.
“These proportions are slowly killing us with the way they force us to live,” Wise said.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong when you don’t have a say so over your own life. When you don’t have health care, paid sick time or retirement.”
Workers want a living wage
Employees are also calling for higher wages.
Marion said that her son, who also works at the location, was promised a raise to $14.50 an hour five months ago, but eventually was told he would have to become a manager to receive it.
“He shouldn’t have to take on a new position just to try to get closer to a living wage,” she said.
Currently the minimum wage in Missouri is $11.15 per hour. But with the rising cost of housing and other living expenses, workers say it’s impossible to make ends meet on that pay.
Marion, who makes $16 an hour, still finds herself living paycheck to paycheck.
Stand Up KC and similar organizations are advocating for wages starting at $15 an hour.
“Our labor is valuable enough that other people get paid $13,200 per hour off of us. But we can’t even start a savings account,” said Marion.
Attempts in Kansas City by voters and the City Council to move toward a $15-an-hour minimum wage have been thwarted by the Missouri legislature, which passed a preemption law in 2017, declaring that local governments cannot set wage levels higher than the state’s.
“We’ve got to restore local control to KC so that we can get laws like minimum wage increases passed for all workers in our city,” Wise said during his speech.
While they push for legislative change, Stand Up KC and the Taco Bell workers said many of their demands don’t require a vote.
“First and foremost, we want to be respected immediately,” Wise said. “And that doesn’t take legislation, that doesn’t take a bill to be passed. That can happen right now, overnight.”
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