Would You Like Fries with That Reform?

What does the battle over the minimum wage have to do with education? Everything…

By Adell Cothorne
Way back before I became a principal, a whistleblower, the “cupcake lady” or joined the fight to save public education, I was a McDonald’s worker. It was 1984 and you name it—cashier, grill operator, grease trap emptier, bathroom cleaner—I did it. I’ve been thinking a lot about my McDonald’s days since watching a recent report on CBS Sunday Morning called “The Battle Over the Minimum Wage.” 

Nancy and me
Nancy, the worker featured in the CBS segment, has worked at McDonald’s for ten years and has been offered promotions. But she’s a single mother and a management position would make her schedule too unpredictable, which means that she’s stuck with her current $8.25 minimum wage position. Unlike Nancy, I didn’t have to support two children on McDonald’s wages, and unlike the average minimum wage worker today I was a teenager. When I got fed up and couldn’t take it anymore, I was able to do something Nancy can’t even consider: quit.

I can still remember working a double shift, which required me to close the store. I dragged my weary, french-fry smelling body home and collapsed into bed at 2:30AM. I was awakened at 6AM by the phone ringing. It was the manager, asking me to come back into work. My mother, who’d picked up the phone and overheard the entire conversation, was livid. Quit, she shouted. But Ma, I can’t! was my response. Yes you can! she said. She didn’t like the way I was being treated, and didn’t like a company that would treat me that way. We may be poor but we ain’t starving, she said. Now quit! And so I did—the very same day.

Fight for 15
Thirty years ago, the average minimum wage worker was a teenager or a woman with extra time on her hands. No more. These days the average age of fast-food workers is 29. Forty percent are 25 or older; 31 percent have at least some college, and more than 26 percent are parents raising children. Now an organized movement known as Fight for 15 is pushing for a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Restaurant association representatives are quick to point out that restaurants operate on a slim profit margin. (I know, by the way; I used to own a food business.) The spokesman on CBS said a $15 hour minimum wage would surely put some owners out of business. A representative from the New York State Restaurant Association told the New York Times that increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour would result in an increased cost to consumers. How much? McDonald’s dollar meal would be $1.25.

Whoa Nellie!
Did she say $1.25? Whoa Nellie! Let me clutch my pearls. You mean to tell me that I could help provide a family with a livable wage simply by contributing the amount I can find under my couch? Yet this is what passes for a *valid* objection to raising the minimum wage. Now I also believe in providing a balanced argument so I took a look at what the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group, had to say. There I learned that minimum wage workers are suburban teens and young adults with an average family income of $65,900 who are enrolled in school during non-summer months. Truth be told, I can’t remember the last time I went to a fast food restaurant and had a teenager take my order, prepare my food or clean up after me. (I see you shaking your head in agreement). As for the Heritage Foundation’s statistics, I must agree with Jay Z who said numbers don’t lie. They don’t—but the people reporting the numbers do.

And now an ad from our sponsor
The CBS segment on the battle over the minimum wage ended with a story about an effort in Washington DC to require Walmart to pay a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour in the six stores it wants to build in the DC area. Walmart refused and threatened to stop construction. DC Mayor Vincent  Gray vetoed the proposal and Walmart officials happily told CBS that 6,000 job applicants showed up to a recent job fair. There was even better news in the Walmart commercial that aired next. According to the ad, Walmart workers have 401(k)s, employer-provided health benefits, and the ability to ascend from part-time workers to a managerial positions.

Fair and balanced
How about some commercials that depict reality, CBS? Where’s the commercial with the worker who doesn’t get to see her family on Thanksgiving because she has to be at work at noon to prepare the store to open at 4PM Thanksgiving Day for the Black “Friday” sale?  Or how about an ad featuring the dad who can’t put his son in little league because he AND his wife both work for Walmart but can barely meet the monthly expenses?  Where’s the commercial with the man who got promoted to manager but now has a heart condition due to the unpredictable and long work hours and too much stress?  Good thing he’s got those employer-provided health benefits.

From fast food nation to education
You may be asking yourself: what does all this have to do with education? Plenty. Let’s begin with the fact that schools were (and still are) intended for the sole purpose of producing workers.  Schools want students to be compliant, docile and obedient, which sounds a lot like what McDonald’s and Walmart want from their workers.  Don’t challenge the wage you earnJust be happy you have a job. (I hear echos of Thank you sir. Can I have another?) By funneling large sums of money to organizations that want to privatize our public education system, Walmart gets to produce exactly the kind of workers it wants. And don’t forget all of the goods that the school/warehouses of the not-so-distant future will require.

No thank you
The other day while I was washing dishes—I know, who still washes dishes?— I overheard my mother inviting my son to come with her to Walmart. We’re not allowed to shop at Walmart, was Alex’s reply. Why not? asked my mother. Because they don’t value public education. I wanted to jump up and down for joy. He listens to me! Because I truly believe in the concept of relevancy in teaching I haven’t yet talked to him about the importance of fair wages and workers rights. He’ll learn about those later.

Send your comments to Adell at adellta724@yahoo.com Follow her on Twitter@adellcothorne


  1. Props on the article and the kid! Doing something right 🙂

    Also, Walmart & other corporations that rely on exploitative low wages for their profits don’t just hurt education through their advocacy. They’re directly responsible for the poverty so many families experience, the poverty that we know makes such an impact on students’ ability to focus on what is happening in the classroom. And by hampering associates’ ability to control their time (either through unpredictable schedules or forcing them to seek additional work), they ensure that these families don’t have time for the family dinners, bedtime stories, weekend museum trips, etc. that would help kids build the background knowledge needed for success in school.

    If Walmart and other companies really cared about kids and their education, they’d pay their parents a living wage and let them work reasonable, predictable hours. That would do far more for everyone than their toxic advocacy has.

  2. As someone who has spent most of her working life working in the service industry, this really resonated with me. I *briefly* worked for Wal-mart and could see, even at 17, how horribly they treated their employees. It’s sadly unsurprising that the very people behind the recent ed-reform stand to directly benefit from people who are ” compliant, docile and obedient.”

    More than ever students need to be given the tools necessary to make their own way in the world. Thank you for this!

  3. I’m reminded of my mother working up to 3 jobs at a time to support 3 school age daughters during the recession of the 1970s. And I’m livid every time I hear or read of a teacher complaining that the problems in our schools can be blamed on absentee parents, or how sad they feel for the child whose parents don’t come to the event they scheduled during school hours (and the parent’s workday).

    Teachers and parents need to pull together to fight corporate reform.

  4. I just got done telling my son that we’re not buying in Mickey D’s until they start paying the people some more money so they can take care of their families. He’s only four but it’s not too early to start training them up with a social conscience. Thanks for reminding me.

  5. Check out the stock prices on Wal-Mart and McDonalds. They make billions and pay a hefty dividend. At least McDonalds does – I put a couple thousand dollars in MCD in the early 90’s and it is worth more than 5 times that, and that doesn’t include the dividends that I chose to not to reinvest (unfortunately). It’s like a form of slavery – people working for beans while the top reap the benefits.

Comments are closed.