THE BLOG
09/16/2014 11:25 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

What's Wrong With Fast Food Workers Earning a Living Wage?

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week, fast food employees across the nation took to the streets to protest low wages. As one of the largest fast food chains in the world, McDonald's is often the target of these protests. Given that the average McDonald's employee receives some of the lowest wages in the industry, at around $7.73 per hour, it should as no surprise that McDonald's often takes center stage in the "fight for 15" campaign.

As with any good protest, the idea is to bring attention to the issue and sway public opinion. If protesters can generate enough bad press and consumer pressure, corporations may be compelled to change their habits.

The goal of $15 per hour is likely a pipe dream. But with around $8.5 billion in income, $3.5 billion in dividend payments, and another $67 million in executive compensation (2012), it seems McDonald's can afford to increase wages some.

Asking for more than you expect to receive is standard practice in any sort of negotiation, so starting the conversation at $15 an hour makes sense.

The problem for workers is that unless management at McDonald's decides to raise wages or improve benefits, they will need their own team of negotiators to represent them. They will also need a structure to approve any agreement. Without this, each employee will be left to fend for themselves -- a situation that clearly has and will continue to favor the multibillion-dollar corporation.

Unfortunately, as soon as employees retain the services of an organization that can help them negotiate better compensation they will also make enemies of those who believe such organizations, unions, are "evil."

My colleague Kathy Hoekstra offers a couple examples of this mentality. Hoekstra sees the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) working with fast food employees and thinks their motives are anything but altruistic. To her they are nothing but a greedy, self-serving, power-hungry organization.

But how is that different than McDonald's? If spending money trying to gain more members makes SEIU power hungry, then the $1 billion in advertising McDonald's spends each year should be a concern as well. If the SEIU executive compensation of around $3 per member shows how greedy union bosses are, then the $77 per employee being paid to McDonalds executives should be much more troubling.

The reality is, both McDonald's and the SEIU are free-market, capitalist entities. Their goals of increasing income and the user base of their product are the same. Suggesting that the one that benefits the average worker is nefarious and that the one that benefits shareholders and the wealthy is the epitome of American ideals is an odd double standard.

Another peculiar argument is that raising employee wages will mean a more expensive Big Mac.

Given the current problem with obesity in this country, making a Big Mac less affordable certainly doesn't seems like a national catastrophe.

The American taxpayer, meanwhile, already contributes around $1.2 billion each year in public assistance to McDonald's employees. It doesn't seem very smart, moral, or "small government"-minded to ask taxpayers to subsidize McDonald's workforce while they shell out billions to shareholders and keep billions more in profit.

Even the scariest of predictions regarding a wage hike leaves McDonald's with around $400 million in profit without touching a single dime of shareholders' earnings or raising the price of a single menu item. Clearly that would fall short of McDonalds' typical earnings, but how many billions of dollars does a company really need to be comfortable?

In the end, the data shows that fast food workers would see a significant increase in wages and benefits with union membership. Regardless of the doomsday rhetoric, plenty of other countries do just as well if not better than the U.S., despite considerably higher unionization rates.

So while capitalist zealots will belittle fast food workers by pretending their low wages accurately reflect their "value," the reality is that if the SEIU gets involved, these employees are likely to see a sudden and dramatic increase in their "value." This reality seems to be very troubling for some people.

The question is, why? When did the public become more protective of corporate profits than the general welfare of working Americans?

Previously published at the Detroit News.