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Guest Column: Wage hike won't fix fast food

BY GUEST COLUMN | DECEMBER 11, 2013 5:00 AM

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In the midst of recent fast-food “walk-offs,” the public briefly took to its latest spectator sport: discussing potential minimum-wage increases. As expected, proponents and opponents presented various rationales, statistics, and anecdotal evidence to wage ferocious battles on news desks, online forums, and student newspapers across America; as expected, both largely missed the broader issue.

To be clear, the minimum wage should be raised.  The sexy rate is $15, a healthy jump from the current, pathetic $7.25, but far less than the $21.72 that reflects worker productivity — a compromise if we’re strictly going by numbers. But whatever arbitrary number less than the actual value of labor you choose, it should be higher than it is now.

What usually passes for rebuttal are incredible nonsequiturs about high-schoolers or lazy dropouts or whatever sort of imaginary scenario one declares the norm, paired with self-congratulating statements about “hard work” and John Galt masturbatory fantasies about being “self-made” (read the online comments section).

However, such anecdotal reasoning cuts both ways: The only high-schooler I’ve ever worked with in my three fast-food jobs did so to support her terminally ill mother, which by the above logic allows me to say with a straight face that such a case is the actual norm (to say nothing of the fact that I, a college graduate, am a fast-food employee).

More sophisticated opponents might argue that higher wages will lead to higher prices, reduced hours, and contraction. In response, you might cite a 2012 Center for American Progress study, an analysis of other studies comparing regions with wage increases to those without, that concludes that a wage increase doesn’t negatively affect job growth.

Don’t: Your counterpart is correct, if not for the reasons they give — miscreant employer practices are already widespread in America.

An unspoken assumption here is that low-wage earners work “full-time.” For instance, $7.25 “full-time” equated to “$15,000 a year,” assumes 40 hours a week, year-round. Here’s a fun thing to try: Visit a fast-food restaurant, ask around about who actually ever gets 40 hours a week. Stories about the lengths to which employers go to deny their employees decent pay are widespread, common currency, great icebreakers for new employees. And it’s not just the case for fast-food employees; you need not search far to hear of all sorts of foul play among family, friends, or beyond.

If this seems too anecdotal, consider the Economic Policy Foundation estimate that un-paid overtime totals $19 billion a year in America. That’s overtime pay, mind you. The U.S. is plagued across the employment spectrum with wage theft: unauthorized paycheck deductions, tip confiscation, inaccurate employee classification, and straight up nonpayment. The Iowa Policy Project estimates $600 million in wage theft in Iowa annually. To simply raise the minimum wage amid such impotent enforcement of current labor laws simply raises the scale.

This reads like I think most employers in America are greedy, an opinion I freely admit to ($600 million). However, I also understand why employers may feel they don’t have much choice if they want to be rich. Most fast-food stores operate as franchisees, where prospective businesspeople buy the rights to their preferred franchise, agreeing to terms: tithing a percentage of revenues, buying franchise-approved materiel often above market price, paying renovation fees, agreeing to censure and fines if conditions aren’t met. The average franchisee often feels pressured from the top and bottom, and while the top is exerting much more pressure, it’s easier to take from those beneath you. That this model is exploitative is not just well known but trumpeted by corporate-level executives because it’s a straightforward way to make a lot of money.

This is all to say that we can’t talk about a minimum-wage increase without talking about much larger systemic issues. Fast food is a business model designed to marginalize its employees through automation and mechanization, making a cheap product that, via manipulative advertising, is made to look cool. Bait and switch on every level. The real problem is that this reflects an abstracted notion of society, focused solely on arbitrary assignations of value and units of consumption rather than actual humans and their real needs, holding sway across most of American political discourse, wrecking very real havoc with theoretical pronouncements.

Jesse Marks


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