THE BLOG
09/23/2014 11:01 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Why Are Fast Food Workers Being Vilified?

Scott Olson via Getty Images

The efforts of fast food workers around the country to bring attention to their low wages earlier this month have generated much media attention.

Conservative writer Deborah Simmons puts voice to a common complaint among advocates of keeping wages low in her article titled "Fast-food jobs a good start, not a career." It should be noted that a few years ago, due to an exceedingly high turnover rate, McDonald's actually started a campaign to convince employees to turn their job into a career. Obviously not every employee can become a manager, but McDonald's certainly wouldn't be the first company to dangle the carrot of promotion to retain good staff at lower rates. Additionally, the fact that only 30 percent of McDonald's staff consists of teenagers suggests there is a need for fast food companies to have a certain percentage of their staff that makes "flipping burgers" at the very least a short-term career, because as a pure cost consideration hiring teenagers who can work for as little as $4.25 makes far more sense.

The next question Simmons asks is, do these employees deserve $15 per hour for "slinging burgers or plopping a basket of fries into a deep fryer"? Unfortunately, this flippant question completely misses the value of the average McDonald's employee. Imagine if someone did the same analysis of Mrs. Simmons job. She gets paid to have an opinion and write about it. Anyone can do that, so does she really "deserve" the wages she makes? The question isn't how many people can do the job but rather how many people can do the job well.

Yes, most anyone can take an order but how many people can take your order quickly, correctly, and provide a positive customer interaction? Do you have to have a degree from an Ivy League college to work the front of a McDonald's? Nope. But you can bet that nearly everyone currently working a McDonald's cash register can do it better than Deborah Simmons, despite her obvious educational advantage.

Having said that, neither what a McDonald's job is "meant to be" or how much someone "deserves" to sling burgers is the reason these employees are asking for a raise. They want a raise because they have helped McDonald's achieve staggering profits and they would like their fair share.

Another concern regarding an increase in wages for fast food employees is that it would increase prices and put stores out of business. While this is certainly possible, McDonald's currently operates with a 20% profit margin. Perhaps rather than raise the cost of the Big Mac they can just cut into the nearly $1 per unit profit they make and share that with employees. It is also true that even with higher wages and only small price increases, McDonald's manages to make more profit at their European locations.

Still others complain that increasing wages will result in fewer employees because these companies will automate. The reality is that companies are looking for ways to cut costs and almost none of them get panned by supporters of free market capitalism. Their sudden concern for the employment levels of low wage workers seems completely disingenuous.

Farmers have eliminated vast numbers of jobs over the years due to advancements in equipment. Are there people clamoring for a return to using oxen to till the fields because it would create jobs? Think of all of increase in employment we could create if we just paid people to move products from the manufacturer to the seller using bicycles instead of those job killing semi-trucks. But even when automation does occur it doesn't necessarily lead to massive layoffs. The invention of ATM has not led to the demise of bank tellers, for instance.

Rather than feigning concern about the number of people employed in the fast food industry, we should be outraged that its low wages cost taxpayers some $7 billion per year, since 52% of families of fast food workers get at least one form of government assistance.

The fight for $15 isn't about retaining a certain number of jobs. It is about providing a wage that a person can live on. If your starter job barely covers your basic needs, how are you supposed to get that elusive college degree that is your path to a better life? If you have to work two jobs just to make ends meet, when are you supposed to spend time with your family and make sure your kids have a better life? If you get low pay and little to no benefits, how are you supposed to prevent an injury or illness from bankrupting you?

But perhaps the favorite talking point for those in support of low wages is the idea that raising wages would hurt the franchisees (small business owners) not the corporation. Apparently, the corporation can't spare a dime of its $8.5 billion in profit to assist each store with possible wage hikes. Apparently, increasing dividend payments for shareholders to $3.5 billion is better for business than rewarding employees with increased pay. Apparently McDonalds' executive team feels no responsibility for a five-year downward sales trend as they still managed to take home as much as $67 million in compensation.

Of course the irony is that employees aren't the only ones at McDonald's that feel they deserve a greater share of the profits. The very franchisees that talking heads claim to be so concerned about are upset with corporate for cutting into their margins with recent increases in franchise fees, fees that are aimed at making McDonald's bottom line look better to investors at the expense of employees and franchisees.

And while employees organizing to negotiate a better deal represents the worst of capitalism to some, it should be noted that franchisees are attempting to do the very same thing. Don't these franchise owners know that in the free market, it is each man for himself? Don't they know that by getting together and demanding more money, they will ultimately destroy McDonald's? Don't they get that McDonald's needs $8.5 billion in profit to survive? How can these small business owners be so naïve, and selfish?

In the end McDonald's, their franchisees, and their employees all want the same thing -- more money. The problem is that unless they all work together to find a way to increase earnings the current model only provides so much profit and for one party to make more it means another party has to accept less. History shows that Henry Ford doubled wages and still managed to increase profits. Are we really supposed to believe McDonald's can't spend a single penny more on workers without going bankrupt or ruining the U.S. economy?

Previously published in the Detroit News