I was sitting on the cold, hard pavement in front of the McDonald’s at 63rd and Paseo in Kansas City waiting to be arrest-ed when the commotion around me triggered a childhood memory that changed my life forever. It was November 29, 2016, and I was a part of a wave of strikes, sit-ins and support actions in 340 cities across the country demanding a living wage and union recognition for fast food workers. There were 400 of us there in Kansas City that night and I was one of 100 – including a number of UAW Local 249 and 31 members – who agreed to put our bodies on the line in solidarity with those workers and submit to arrest.
I wasn’t eager to be arrested. I knew some people would disapprove. But I could trace this act of peaceful civil disobedience back to the beginnings of my own union when the founding members of Local 249 sat down at the Kansas City Assembly Plant on April 2, 1937, to prevent the company from firing union members and demand union recognition.
As the police began to make arrests that night, the memory of my divided childhood came flooding back. Growing up my parents separated. My dad had a good union job and all that comes with it at the Ford Motor Kansas City Assembly Plant, but my mom was a waitress. The tips she earned came nowhere near the hourly pay my dad took home and there were no benefits. At my mom’s, to eat out at McDonald’s or go to the movies we mowed lawns or picked up bottles on the side of the road to turn in for the refund.
In 1995, I’d followed my dad into Ford. I was on the afternoon shift doing the carpet install job on the Contour and Mystique. It was a hard job, but I had good pay – more important my daughter and I now had health insurance. Sitting with fast food workers in 2016 waiting for the police to put us in their paddy wagons, the memories of my mother’s struggles to provide for us came flooding back.
In that moment, I was no longer just a supporter of the fast-food workers sitting on the street next to me. I had lived through the same struggles. I was one of them. Then and there, I resolved to do everything in my power to make sure that people like my mother and the men and women next to me that night had all the benefits a union contract provides.
That resolution put me on a path to where I am today: a blue-collar candidate for the Missouri State House of Representatives from District 17, the area around the place where I have worked since 1995, the Ford Motor Kansas City Assembly Plant – home to UAW Local 249, the proud builders of the F-150 pickup truck and the Transit commercial van.
There are very few blue-collar workers like you and me in elective office at any level. Although about 54 percent of Americans – a majority – have held a blue-collar job, according to Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes, the number of Congresspeople who come from a working-class background is less 2 percent. Millionaires, on the other hand, just 3 percent of the population are a majority in the U.S. House, the Supreme Court and a supermajority in the Senate.
We are told, in the bait and switch world we live in today, that businessmen are best qualified by training and education to write our laws, but the reality is that the laws they pass are written for them by right wing think tanks and benefit only the rich and well connected.
That’s why the working-class majority needs representatives that will write and pass laws that benefit everyone – not just the billionaires. I am running for the Missouri House of Representatives to be part of that change.
A series of people’s referendums overturning laws passed – or not passed – by the legislature reveal that our elected officials aren’t really working for us. In recent years Missouri voters overturned right to work, raised the minimum wage, expanded Medicaid, and legalized marijuana against the wishes of their elected representatives. In response, Missouri legislators voted to make it harder for citizens to petition to place referenda on the ballot.
That night on the pavement at McDonalds set my life on a new course, but it would be years before I decided to run for elected office.
My work with fast food workers taught me how organize union members to fight in their own interests. I was working on the C-Crew in the Truck System. There were many newly hired temps and in-progression UAW members who were dealing with low pay and lack of benefits on that shift. I learned to ask them to get involved and they did.
In 2017 I was one of a number of leaders at Local 249 who helped lead a statewide campaign to overturn the anti- worker right-to-work law passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor. In those days, you couldn’t go anywhere in the state without seeing worker activists petitioning to overturn the law. We petitioned across the state and in the end turned in 310,567 signatures to put the referendum on the ballot.
With the referendum on the ballot, we turned our attention to educating the public about the real aims of right to work and turning out voters in the August primary. Yard signs supporting our effort to overturn the law sprang up across the state in both urban and rural counties. When the vote was counted, we’d won an overwhelming victory. More than 67 percent of the state voters in almost every county in the state voted to overturn the law.
At Local 249, I was elected to two terms as Recording Secretary and served as chair of the union’s CAP Committee for five years. As chair of CAP, the union’s political action committee, I got involved in politics for the first time. At that time, District 17, where the Kansas City Assembly Plant is located, was represented by an antiworker Republican.
A Democrat who supported worker rights, had run for the seat three times and lost. He was ready to give up. We asked ourselves how a representative who opposed us could lead the district where so many of our members live and work.
We persuaded him to run one more time and threw the weight of the union behind him. As CAP chair, I mobilized members to knock on doors and distribute literature at doors throughout the district. With Local 249 solidly behind him, we won. We had a representative who represented us for the first time.