This Thursday, strangely on the anniversary of no people’s anything that I can find, America’s fast food workers, we are told, will rise as one in cities across the nation to decry their meager wages and make the case that fast food employees deserve a minimum wage of $15 an hour. fastfoodforward.org tells us that “Raising pay for fast food workers will benefit workers and strengthen the overall economy.” Service Employees International Union’s web site tells us “I’ve told friends and family on Facebook about my “success story” with the Affordable Care Act, and several friends have emailed me for more information about how to sign up.” So priorities are fleeting. No doubt the ACA defacto mandated 29 hour work week will bring them round these parts again. There is a mention of support for Wal-Mart workers’ hope for higher pay on the home page, but no direct tie in to the fast food issue despite the New York Times mention of the SEIU’s backing.
Workers of any stripe can try their best to put a value on the fruits of their labor, but it’s hard to argue with the market as an arbiter of worth. People decide what they will part with for a service. That’s the market. To those who rail against the market, I paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke in saying that you might as well blame the bathroom scale for your weight. While “industry officials” say “only a small percentage of fast-food jobs pay the minimum wage and that those are largely entry-level jobs for workers under 25,” the truth is that fast food work requires a very low level of skill. The current rate for pressing the button that steams the burger filet, putting it in a bun with preset accoutrements is roughly two Big Macs per hour. A dollar value has been assigned that amount of skill pressed to action. Double that dollar amount. Does the skill pressed to action gain value? Of course not. Despite fastfoodforward.org’s claim that “Raising pay for fast food workers will benefit workers and strengthen the overall economy,” arbitrarily raising the dollar value for a quantity of work devalues the dollar and picks the pocket of anyone with a savings account. The better argument for benefiting the the “overall economy” would be to lower or eliminate the minimum wage.
The idea that a McDonald’s worker is underpaid for the work he does is hard to justify given the intense competition for fast food dollars. If french fry worker A was being paid $8 an hour to make fries at McDonald’s but was producing labor worth $15 an hour, surely Wendy’s would have stolen him for $12. Who wouldn’t buy a $15 dollar product for $12? Has he been offered even $10 by Burger King? The same can be said for the grossly underpaid Wal-Mart worker who has not been gobbled up by Target. fastfoodforward.org can claim “In America, people who work hard should be able to afford basic necessities like groceries, rent, childcare and transportation,” but you need to produce something worth more than the labor you sell. I’m as guilty as the next guy. I wrote this post. I mowed my lawn. I worked hard. I got nothing because if I don’t elicit demand, my labor is worth squat.
A final note particular to food service: I have seen talented line cook with chef potential after talented line cook with chef potential mortgage themselves to the hilt for culinary instruction. $40K in student loan debt is not unusual for an education that promises little more than a line cook position with the carrot of an exec position hanging in reach of the brilliant, but in mockery of the majority. Theater majors have better prospects than culinary students. Why anyone would attend culinary school when chefs of all skill levels are willing to pay them to train on the job is beyond me. But they keep coming, and the labor market is such that most fine dining restaurants in the Birmingham market have such a glut of capable and trained line cooks that the grill can be expected to distinguish med rare from rare during dinner rush, the saute can be counted on to de-bone and otherwise prep fish and veg, and apps pumps out salads with dressings made to order and with the exception of one or two salaried positions, no one makes more that $12-$14 an hour. Ask a Taco Bell employee to make mirepoix. Ask him what mirepoix is. Unbalance that labor market and I can’t fathom how much it costs to have “fries with that.”