August 5, 2013

So You Want To Pay $10 for a Big Mac?

I’ve been following with interest, the recent news stories about the fast-food strikes. Or the one-day walkouts, or whatever they’re calling it today. Millions of workers around the country would like to make more money, elevate their standard of living, raise their children, pay the rent, and maybe drive a nice car.

And isn’t that what we all want?

But as I watch the evening news and witness interviews with the protesters, I wonder if they really understand what it is that they’re fighting for.

“This company just wants to make money.” Well, um, yeah. That’s pretty much the reason why anyone starts a business. But generally when you picket a McDonald’s store, you’re not hurting the McDonald’s Corporation. You’re hurting a small business owner who lives just down the street from you.
“How am I supposed to raise three children on $7.40 an hour?” Strange question. Actually, I don’t think you are. These jobs are ideally suited for teenagers, college students, and retirees; that is, people who already have a primary means of support. Your hourly wage is based not on your needs, but rather your (perceived) value to the company.

“This is tantamount to slavery!” Oh, really? Did someone compel you into this job? Do they not allow you to leave the premises after your shift is over? Did your manager rape your daughter, with impunity? I don’t think so. To compare this situation to slavery, is to belittle the hardships of real slaves.

The average fast-food restaurant has hundreds of applications on file from people begging for a job, any job. If one person quits or gets fired, he/she can be replaced within a day; it doesn't take long, to learn how to push buttons on a cash register. Worst-case scenario, you’ll have plenty of volunteers to add a shift to their schedule. These things happen so often, they're built into the budget. The job that you hate, your neighbor would love to have.

These workers are demanding union representation, and indeed the Service Employees International Union is aiding their efforts. But according to a recent article in the New York Times, the SEIU isn’t really interested in organizing the industry. In a business that (on average) shows 75% turnover each year, it would be a nightmare for recruiting, collecting dues, etc. Their return on investment would make it a losing proposition.

Union representation (and the threat of strikes) makes the most sense when your members have rare, valuable skills: autoworkers, computer programmers, aerospace engineers. If one of these guys quits or retires, they’re hard to replace. (My father in-law designed the flight controls for a DC-10. Only a few people on the planet, knew how to do that.) Not so for a cashier in a Wendy’s restaurant, who can be replaced in the blink of an eye. Hence, the long odds of the current campaign.

Early in my high school years, my counselor advised me to seek out a job at a local fast-food place. Not because it would enable me to buy a house and raise a family and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, but because I could pick up valuable life lessons at an important crossroads in my life: discipline, humility, work ethic, commitment, and so on. Better to learn these things in my teens (when it’s easy to recover from mistakes) than in my thirties (when my career reputation could be damaged for all time).

No doubt, flipping burgers is an honest day’s work. It’s an honorable thing to work with your hands, and eke out a living by the sweat of your brow. But for most of us, it’s not supposed to be a career. It’s an entry-level position, a first job that shapes your character and prepares you for the challenges of the future. This is dignity. This is empowerment.There's nothing noble about claiming entitlement, or getting ahead through hostility or extortion.

Our capitalist economy is a Darwinian construct where the fittest survive. It’s a meritocracy that rewards hard work and extraordinary initiative. You get ahead by proving yourself, learning new skills, and making ever-greater contributions to the company. And for that matter, our civilization. Promotions and raises go to those who don’t just show up and display the technical skills, but also make themselves indispensable by going the extra mile. 

Incidentally, I have a friend who manages a hamburger joint in Los Angeles. He began by working the griddle, and worked his way up. (It's a well-known chain, and no, his uncle doesn't own the place.) Last year he earned $109,000. His assistant managers earn over half that amount. Without a union, and without a strike. (This is average, for the company.) I’m convinced that the opportunities do exist, for those who are willing to make the sacrifices to earn it.

Sir Winston Churchill once famously said that democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the others. Among the economic models of the world, the same could be said of capitalism.

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