by David McElroy
None of the fast food places near me are shut down because of a growing series of strikes, as far as I know. But if the walkout extends to a McDonald’s or Wendy’s or something similar near here, I might have to eat there — just out of principle — because these misguided workers are wrong.
They’re being led astray by union bosses who want to increase their own power — by bringing more workers under their control — not caring that their actions are likely to destroy the jobs of the people they claim to want to help.
Guided by the union bosses of the Service Employees International Union, these employees are demanding that fast food chains increase their minimum starting pay to $15 an hour. Their pitch to the public: “We can’t survive on $7.25.”
I have no special love for the people who own and operate most fast food joints. With few exceptions, they’re poorly managed and the companies don’t care much about the customer experience or the employees. They tend to sell a sub-par product (which never looks like the product in the commercials). The employees tend to be rude and poorly trained. Management tends to be surly and unprepared. So what’s there to like about them? Simply that they give us quick access to generic, reasonably predictable food at pretty cheap prices (compared to traditional restaurants).
So why are the employees and their union bosses wrong? I could list a number of reasons why they’re wrong, but it all boils down to economics and morality.
The union campaign claims, “We are worth more,” but anyone who understands economics can tell you that’s wrong, for the simple fact that the labor market determines the worth of someone.
First, you have to understand that having a minimum wage of any type distorts the market. The existence of a minimum wage causes a reduction in employment. This isn’t complicated or controversial. If the government mandates that a person be paid more than the value he delivers, a company must find a way to reduce the number of employees hired — in order to make up for the loss. Companies are driven to reduce staffing and increase automation of low-level functions when the price rises to something higher than the value that an unskilled worker delivers.
It’s simple economics to understand that if a particular worker can add more value to a company, a smart company is going to do more to keep him. That means paying him more money and giving him other incentives he might want, within the confines of what he’s worth. But if a worker is easily replaced by someone of equal value, there’s no reason to increase his pay. A shortage of workers who can provide good value forces wages up. An oversupply of workers (especially unskilled workers) forces wages down.
In a real market — free from government interference — some entry-level workers might start out at $5 an hour or even less. But as those workers showed they had worth, their value would go up and they would be paid more in order for the company to keep them. But the key is that they deliver actual value. Most workers that I observe today believe they’re entitled to pay raises simply because they’ve worked at a company for a certain number of days or months or years. They don’t understand that they have to deliver more value than they’re paid or else they’re a net loss for the employer, not someone the company wants to keep around.
The economic case is very simple and it’s plenty of reason to explain why workers aren’t worth $15 an hour (or whatever the unions might want to propose as a “living wage” in the future). But the heart of why the workers are wrong in my eyes — and the reason I’d go out of my way to buy from a store hit by one of these strikes — is all about morality.
You are not due any more than the value that you provide to an employer. If you are worth $8 an hour and you get $15 an hour because of some sort of coercion, the extra money you are getting is money that isn’t rightly yours. It’s money you’re taking that you haven’t earned.
The idea of giving honest value and the idea of not taking what isn’t yours are moral ideas. We slowly seem to have been losing touch with those ideas in this culture. People seem to believe they’re entitled to whatever they need or want. That is a lie.
The relationship between an employee and an employer is a simple one. The employee does specified work for an employer and is paid for it. That’s it. As long as each party upholds his side of the bargain, there’s nothing more to it. But some people today have gotten the idea that the employer has a responsibility to take care of an employee — to meet his needs, whether it’s enough money or health care or whatever. It’s paternalistic nonsense and outright theft.
There are certainly lousy and dishonest employers. I’ve encountered them and I’ve heard of many other cases of companies trying to cheat people. (A recent case of a McDonald’s franchisee who forced his employees to get their pay through debit cards that cost them money to use is an especially egregious example.) But that doesn’t justify workers demanding what they haven’t earned — and that’s what this strike is all about.
If an employee can deliver $15 an hour of value, the market will be happy to pay it. Plenty of industries pay that (and much more) for employees who are intelligent and skilled at certain things. But fast food is the ultimate entry-level unskilled position. It’s a job where someone should learn how to work and get a good reputation and then move on. It’s not something that’s ever going to rationally be a career for lower-level employees. It’s not something that is going to provide a “living wage.”
For my first job, I was a janitor. I was in high school and I had no marketable skills. I wasn’t thrilled with my job. I earned minimum wage and I cleaned toilets and emptied trash and cleaned floors. It was menial, but it was a job so that I could learn how to be employed.
Before long, a newspaper offered me a job as a part-time reporter/photographer. I was still paid minimum wage, but I was learning how to cover news stories and take pictures for a small daily paper. When I returned from college the following summer, I spent three months as a fill-in chief photographer until a new one could be hired in the fall. The following summer, I was a temporary lifestyles editor, writing weddings and engagements and writing feature stories that bored me to death.
After my junior year, the company offered me a full-time job. I wasn’t going to get rich, but it was more than minimum wage — as managing editor of a small weekly paper that the company owned nearby. After about seven months there, I was promoted to sports editor of the daily paper, making more money as I was worth more to the company.
A few months later, I was promoted to managing editor just a few weeks shy of my 22nd birthday. I was the youngest managing editor of a daily newspaper in the country at the time. I wasn’t getting rich, but I was easily making enough to live on.
If I had demanded more than minimum wage when I was hired as a janitor, I’d have never gotten the job. If I hadn’t been willing to work — very, very hard — for a couple of years at minimum wage for the newspaper, all of my summers and weekends during the school year, I would have never been in the position to move up to a better full-time job.
I gave a lot of value before I was rewarded for it, but when I was, the work I’d done was worth it. None of that would have ever happened if I had demanded that I be paid more than I was worth.
If you’re demanding that an employer pay you more than the market says you’re worth, you’re asking for money that you haven’t earned. You’re trying to steal from an employer. It’s wrong.
These fast food workers don’t understand economics or values. Until someone explains to them the truth about how commerce really works, they’re apparently going to keep listening to lies from union bosses filling their minds with garbage about being paid high wages for value they haven’t provided.
They’re wrong and they don’t deserve money they haven’t earned.