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McDonald's Wage Theft Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Cutthroat, Low-Wage Fast Food Industry

03/18/2014 10:21 am ET | Updated May 18, 2014

I'm assuming most of you already know that workers in three different states have filed a lawsuit charging that the McDonald's corporation and its franchisees have been stealing their wages and violating minimum wage laws. Republicans like "moderate" (i.e., less extreme than Ted Cruz) Sen. Lamar Alexander have endorsed doing away with the minimum wage altogether, although they presumably still oppose direct theft of an employee's wages by their boss.

On the one hand, it's certainly true that not all or even most employers are openly stealing from workers. By the way, it takes a special kind of, er, person (I try to keep it clean here) to steal from someone earning minimum wage. The wage theft that allegedly happened at these McDonald's locations is in no way an isolated incident.

Let's look at the larger picture when it comes to the relationship between capital and low-wage labor. That relationship is defined by an extreme imbalance of power. In an unregulated environment, virtually all the power rests with capital, the owner. Low-wage workers -- especially in a time of high unemployment -- are seen as eminently replaceable. Unless we are talking about abnormally altruistic people (and it's fair to say that fast-food franchisees are not somehow more altruistic than the rest of us), human nature is such that in a highly competitive environment, many of us will look to take advantage wherever we can in order to succeed. Or, to quote Lord Acton: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Given these realities, the only way that low wage workers can avoid being robbed blind is through the protections they receive from we the people, through our laws. This is why people like Sen. Alexander are so wrong when they argue against even the existence of the minimum wage (which we should raise right now to at least the level President Obama and most congressional Democrats are calling for). What the right wing doesn't understand is that the free market and capitalism simply cannot function successfully in the long run without strict laws and regulations that redress the imbalance of power between workers, especially low-wage workers, and employers. The concept of "race to the bottom" either never crosses their minds, or it simply doesn't matter given that their only concern is to serve the interests of the very employers whose power we need to restrain.

Ultimately, that power has to be checked. In a well-functioning capitalist economy -- one that has strong mechanisms in place to check the power of capital -- workers and employers each benefit from the value created by labor. If too much power resides in the hands of employers and capital more broadly, the tension builds and builds until, ultimately, the masses seek to check that power through the only means that remain available to them. They go outside the political system. They engage in mass demonstrations, strikes, and other civil actions. And if that doesn't work, then you get revolution and bloodshed. No one wants things to get bad enough for that to be seen as the only alternative.

I don't believe we are near the point of that kind of revolution yet. We do have the minimum wage, and we have other labor laws in place that -- while they are not strong enough -- are not so weak as to lead people to risk everything, even their lives, to bring about change through violence. But let's not kid ourselves, we need to do a lot more to bring things even close to where they should be. Furthermore, there are certainly many on the right who believe in an Ayn Rand style vision of how our economy should work. If they somehow were able to implement that vision, the kind of practices McDonald's of which is accused will be looked back upon fondly.

We cannot allow that to happen. We must make sure not only that we raise the minimum wage, enforce laws against wage theft, etc. We must also make people understand how severe is the imbalance of power between many, if not most, workers and their employers. We have to make them understand and feel in their gut that without government putting its thumb on the scale on behalf of workers, that imbalance would be so severe as to be unsustainable.

Without strong government measures playing a role in the equation, workers will at some point come to believe they have no choice but to simply knock the scale to the floor. That's the kind of destruction we must make sure we avoid.