Thursday, August 29, 2013

Does a Strike Come With That Shake?

But let's also be realistic. The [fast-food worker] strikes would have a much better shot at inspiring a change in franchise- and corporate-level policy if fast-food chains perceived one of two threats: (a) a threat to the steady supply of food-service workers who want to be employed at any wage and (b) a threat from consumers demanding higher wages for their fast-food clerks by not buying burgers and fries at McDonald's.
Derek Thompson "Why the Fast-Food Worker Strikes Are Doomed"
One of the interesting things about being in the Seattle area during part of the tech boom was watching restaurants suffer. With technology companies sprouting up like dandelions and hiring just about anyone with a pulse and two spare brain cells to rub together, it started becoming difficult for some places to maintain a high enough level of staffing to provide worthwhile service. The culmination of this was, for me, seeing a Burger King that was offering $500 signing bonuses to people who would work there.

Arguably, in this way, the Tech Bubble made food-service work more attractive (in absolute terms) by reducing the supply of people who needed, despite their job skills (or lack thereof) to settle for it on an employers terms. At that time, had workers thought to strike, they could likely have wrested some pretty serious concessions out of owners and corporations that would have had a very hard time replacing them. But, that's kind of the point. When the labor market is tight, strikes, while devastating, are often unnecessary - employers realize that it's an employee's market, and that they have to pony up, or, like some places here were eventually forced to, go out of business.

On the flip side of the Mr. Thompson's equation is customer action. The simple way to get higher pay for fast-food (and other food) workers, is for people to not eat at places that pay rock-bottom wages. The calculus, for businesses, is simple. If being perceived as a cheapskate becomes a competeive disadvantage, companies will work as shedding the image that they don't pay very well. Now, even though Seattle bills itself as a fairly progressive place, there doesn't seem to be much appetite for a targetted boycott arond here. And there likely won't be unless someone takes it on themselves to raise employee wages and then calls on people to support them. But that will be dicey. Most people expect fast food to be cheap, and likely won't stick around if it isn't. When prices go up, sales drop.

And, it turns out, to double the McDonald's wages, a Big Mac would actually cost an extra $1.28. Still hungry?

But if fast-food workers are going to make more money, something has to give. For their strike to work, they're going to need help from external factors, either the labor market or restaurant customers. So the question is: will it come?

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