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Working People in Missouri Are Pushed Back…But Press Forward

Amy Traub

The Missouri legislature keeps stomping on working people.

In May, the city of St. Louis raised its minimum wage to $10 an hour for anyone working in city limits. More than 30,000 working people, predominantly workers of color, saw their paychecks rise. In August, Kansas City followed suit, as voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2022. But the Missouri state legislature acted to undercut the will of local voters: this week, a new state law went into effect yanking back the wage increases. In St. Louis, the paychecks of minimum wage workers plunged 23 percent, to just $7.70 an hour.

“I was in the process of losing my home and just beginning to catch up on my rent,” McDonald’s worker and mother of 4 Wanda Rogers told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s going to be a struggle for me again… I wish somebody at the top could come and see how hard we work and whether they can support their families off $7.70 an hour.”

Ignoring a long record of successful wage hikes across the nation, Governor Eric Greitens insisted that increasing the minimum wage “doesn’t work in practice” and would particularly harm small businesses. More than 100 small business owners in St. Louis disagreed, vowing to retain the wage increase for their employees. Nevertheless, multibillion dollar corporations like McDonald’s (which already pays higher wages in dozens of states and cities across the country and abroad) swiftly moved to cut the paychecks of their frontline workers.

But worker activists in Missouri aren’t giving up. Raise Up Missouri, a coalition of faith, labor and community groups, is gathering signatures for a November 2018 ballot initiative that would gradually raise the statewide minimum wage to $12 an hour. Their prospects are encouraging: Missouri’s workplace advocates are fresh off a recent victory pushing back against another anti-worker law promoted by the state government.

In August, activists submitted 310,567 signatures—more than triple what was required—to halt a law that would have crushed workers’ freedom to form or maintain strong unions. By restricting unions’ ability to secure support from all of the workers they represent, the so-called “right to work” law would likely have pushed down wages in Missouri just as similar laws have in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Instead of going into effect, the anti-worker “right to work” law will also appear on the November 2018 ballot for voters to decide. Corporate lobbyists are expected to spend big to turn citizens against both the minimum wage measure and the effort to support unions. As Demos research has shown, secretive “dark money” and big donors have consistently distorted American democracy, contributing to policy outcomes that don’t reflect the views of the electorate. But the 310,567 signatures vividly show that working people in Missouri are organized and ready for a fight. Returning from a trip to St. Louis in support of deep canvassing work organized by local group Organization for Black Struggle, my Demos colleague Carol Lautier reports that members are clear: economic justice will only happen if they continue to mobilize their community.