Marion: ‘At the top of America, as it pertains to Trump and them, their goal is to keep us down.’ Photograph: Tom Silverston/Tom Silverstone
Marion isn’t in it for the politics. She is in it for the money, money that means one thing for her: getting her family back together and giving them a secure life. We pick her up at Popeyes and drive to a pleasant Kansas City suburb. Cicadas thrum as she beams strolling from the car to hug her daughter Rayven and goddaughter Shi’ Ann.
Shi’ Ann, in her rainbow hued “LOVE” T-shirt (the “O” is a butterfly), plays with princess flip-flops and squirms, giggling in Marion’s arms. “Princesses don’t put their fingers in their mouths,” laughs Marion. I ask Rayven how it is living without her mum. The idyll is over. Tears fill her eyes. Marion goes inside so we can’t see her cry.
Later, Marion says Rayven wants to leave school at 16 and get a job in fast food to help out. Ideally, her mum wants her to go to college but nothing is ideal for the Marion family at present.
After the visit, we drive back into the city to All Souls Unitarian church where Marion and Hughes are set to address a panel of academics, union leaders and others. The neighborhood is a world away from their own. A giant Louise Bourgeois spider menaces a manicured lawn at the Kemper art museum close by. The two women are unintimidated. They hold the room with ease as they talk about their fight with humor and a confidence that things will change.
Guests ask why they don’t go back to school, get higher paid jobs. Hughes has a college degree but as the daughter of a low wage worker said she could only afford community college. Employers saw her degree as “worthless”, and she ended up $13,000 in debt. She did have a job in a tax office but lost it only to find that thanks to Missouri’s business-friendly rules, she was barred from working for another tax office by a non-compete agreement. (Fast food franchisor Jimmy John’s imposed a similar agreement on its workers but dropped it last year after a public backlash.)
Barred from tax office work, Hughes said fast food was all she could find.
Marion says the argument that fast food workers should leave for other, better paid, jobs misses the point. People like fast food. The companies that make it make fortunes. “We are the foot soldiers for these billion-dollar businesses. We’re the ones doing the job and bringing the money,” she says.
“At the top of America, when it comes to Trump and them, their goal is to keep us down,” she says. “Between these billion-dollar companies and Trump, it is a power trip.”
They can afford to pay more and, she believes, eventually they will. “We are still coming. No war has been won during the night and we are not giving up.”
More than that, she likes working in fast food. “I love it. I’m good at it. Exactly like Martin Luther King said, ‘If you are going to be a road sweeper, be the best damn sweeper there is’,” she says. “I don’t understand. It’s just this society is all messed up.”