"Get up! Get down! Fast food workers run this town!"
That was one of the chants striking fast food workers, and the union members and community groups who were supporting them were singing the day Saint Louis joined the growing list of cities whose fast food workers were engaging in a one-day strike to highlight the need for higher wages and the ability to organize. The website City-Data.com says that there are 292 fast food restaurants in Saint Louis, or 8.21 fast food restaurants per 10,000 residents, which indicates this chant may be true.
Chants about fast food workers "running this town" continued to ring in my head as I watched the strike spread to many great American cities (New York City, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee). It has been nagging at me because the vast majority of restaurant workers are above 25 years old and almost 60 percent dropped out of high school. I am sure they did not set out to work in a fast food restaurant; they are doing it because the education and social services system failed them.
While I have the utmost respect for fast food workers and the physically grueling work they do, the jobs in those restaurants were intended for high school and college students who need gas money not for moms and dads trying to feed a family. Because, our country has allowed generations of Americans to pass through a failed education system, we have banished people who are capable of fighting fires, teaching children and delivering babies to the kind of low skill jobs that don't require a high school diploma.
Please do not misunderstand. I support the right of the fast food workers to organize, and I believe whole-heartedly that Americans deserve to make a living wage. That doesn't mean though that I don't also hope for a day when we have an education system that fulfills its promise to provide a quality education for everyone.
In this article in The Nation a fast food worker is quoted as saying that she participated in the Milwaukee fast food workers strike "basically to help my generation out, and the next generation to follow." I agree with her, that her generation, the one that the system already failed, needs a higher wage, the right to organize and they desperately need the social safety net to catch them when/if the rug gets pulled out from under them again.
I also agree that she should be doing this for the next generation, but not so that the next generation of kids who drop out of an education system that failed them has a union and gets paid a higher wage for selling hamburgers. She and the unions who organized the strike should be trying to figure out how to ensure there isn't another generation of single mothers who want to be CEOs, professors or police officers but wind up selling hamburgers.
The fast food worker strike is the perfect illustration of why the labor unions should be the bridge between the education reformers and the education establishment. The unions are on the frontline. They are the ones recruiting, training, employing and protecting workers who are too often hindered by an inadequate education to earn more and obtain a more fulfilling career. The fast food workers strike highlights that no one is better positioned to be telling legislators that the American education system is failing students than the unions.
I hope the strikes are successful. I hope that all my former students' parents and grandparents who are working in fast food restaurants start earning a living wage and that they can become proud members of a union. But I also hope the unions will look down the road at the next generation of workers and decide they want them to have more opportunities. I hope the unions decide they want to shake up the status quo and join the education reform community in our effort to reimagine education, because that, and only that, is what will create an unstoppable workforce in America.