What Does the Fast-Food Industry Think About Labor Strikes?

A trade publication story offers insights on the employer side of the equation.

Labor Strikes: What Does the Fast-Food Industry Think About It?
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Curious to know what the fast-food industry thinks about the mounting wave of one-day strikes that has brought the issue of wages into the national spotlight? I mean, beyond the fact that they generally believe wages are competitive and that unions are unnecessary (the standard corporate line that’s repeated in the face of labor unrest in any industry)? Then a new story in QSR Magazine, a quick-service restaurant trade publication, is the article you need to read.

Running under the headline “Paid in Full?,” Christine Blank’s piece takes a balanced look at both sides of the pay debate, which hasn’t always been the case in stories on the issue from progressive outlets like Salon and The Nation. This isn’t for a lack of trying to get interviews with franchise owners and corporate officers; employees have been far more open, and a picket line is a distinctly more public forum than a boardroom.

In the QSR story, however, CEOs and industry figures, like the executive vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association, expand beyond the auto-response about competitive wages and unnecessary unions—and their insights are equally fascinating and frustrating.

Many of the comments featured in Blank’s story are focused on why raising the minimum wage is a bad idea. Margins are too thin, state-mandated minimum wages are higher, rising wages would lead to dramatic price hikes, etc., etc. “I don’t support raising the national minimum wage. The average restaurant company can’t do that without some very serious price-raising. It is terrible for the industry and the consumer, and has a ripple effect throughout the entire economy,” Don Fox, the CEO of a small sandwich chain, Firehouse Subs, tells QSR.

But Scott DeFife, the National Restaurant Association exec interviewed, offers less rote commentary, and his statements seem to lay bare a very different line of thinking, one that transcends any budget-line debate about margins and wages.

Further, the purpose behind strikes against quick-serve chains, DeFife says, is not necessarily to benefit or organize quick-serve workers. “By focusing on our industry, they use it to make a point that they can turn into benefitting workers in other industries,” he says. Labor unions that are organizing the strikes are realistic that they will not organize quick-serve workers into unions, he adds. “Most of the young workers have never seen a great value in paying the union dues.”

This light bit of fast-food strike trutherism is problematic on many fronts, and chief among them is that fast-food workers do not have the major backing of a traditional union. The SEIU has offered some material support, but what has come to be known as alt-labor is more of a grassroots, worker-driven movement; the organizing roll that a union would traditionally play has been provided by nonprofits like Fast Food Forward.

During a walk-off at the end of July, journalist Nick Pinto observed that striking workers revised the classic picket line chant, “We are the union / the mighty, mighty union,” to reflect a “complicated relationship to unions.” Instead they shouted “We are the workers / the mighty, mighty workers.” There may be some truth to DeFife’s suggestion that unions like the SEIU are lending a hand more for PR purposes than the promise of adding new, dues-paying workers to its ranks. But the mere suggestion that unions are behind these strikes is a red herring. 

DeFife offers up another gem too, portraying the fast-food workforce in outdated terms:

“However, only about 5 percent of restaurant industry workers are at the federal minimum wage level—the rest are earning above that—and a little more than 50 percent are teenagers, DeFife says, citing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “In many cases, minimum wage is a starting wage and high performers are moved up quickly. Eighty percent of managers and owners started at entry-level jobs; the industry is really an industry of opportunity,” he says.

The National Employment Law Projects report on upward mobility in the industry—spoiler alert: there is none—complicates DeFife’s second claim. And as for the age of workers, Blank cites the oft-reported statistic that “the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median age for a fast-food worker is 28, while the median age for female fast-food workers is 32.”

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