PhillyDeals: Raises for fast-food workers won't break the bank

From left, John, Carl and Mark DiStefano, three of columnist Joseph N. DiStefano's sons, working at their local McDonald's in spring 2011.
From left, John, Carl and Mark DiStefano, three of columnist Joseph N. DiStefano's sons, working at their local McDonald's in spring 2011.
Posted: September 02, 2013

As strikes go, this one was more symbol than shutdown.

The Burger King on U.S. 202 in Wilmington, in my neighborhood, was one of the fast-food outlets hit by a national mini-walkout and picketing backed by the Service Employees International Union. SEIU held a pre-Labor Day "action," pushing for higher wages for the army of workers who pack and sell fast-food sandwiches, drinks, fries, and snacks in factory-like conditions.

The strikers want to double the minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, as my colleague Jane Von Bergen reported.

The objections to forced higher wages are well-known, and professional advocates of letting the market decide how low pay can go make basic arguments: Higher wages mean higher prices. Small businesses and marginally profitable firms can't afford to pay more and will fire some workers. They will replace some entry-level jobs with machines.

It's hard to blame the local franchisees who operate fast-food restaurants, or even the hugely profitable corporations that license, supply, and market them, for those mostly self-serving arguments.

It's harder to accept the claims of elected officials who say that, in fighting higher wages, they're just trying to help poor people.

A well-known, Republican-funded study cited by the libertarian, anti-minimum-wage Ludwig von Mises Institutes estimates "a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage reduced teenaged employment by 1 percent to 3 percent."

Ask people you know whether they'd take a 10 percent raise if it also meant a 1 in 50 chance they'd have to find another job.

In a nation that supports so many casinos, lotteries, and the New York Stock Exchange, you'll find a lot of low-paid people will cheerfully take that bet.

My son Mark, for example. He and his brother John (joined for a time by their brother Carl) worked at the McDonald's across the road from that Burger King on 202 from age 15 until they enrolled in college. Each was named employee of the month soon after starting. After their first and only raise, they made 10 cents above minimum wage. They supplemented their 30-hour weeks with other jobs selling computers and doing roofing.

Mark told me he'd "absolutely" have risked those odds to earn a little more. "If I lost my job, it was easy to find another," he told me.

I asked the same question, years ago, of Mexican immigrant mushroom workers in southern Chester County, and got the same answer again and again: Sure. If we lose out, we'd just get a job at one of the other hongeras. They're almost always hiring.

What of the argument that a $15 minimum wage would doom the dollar menu? "People were passing around on social media this study that said the price of a Big Mac would go up something like 69 cents," Mark, who's now working his way through college at a bank, told me Friday.

He said young people and many African Americans tend to buy from the dollar menu. He figures they'd be affected more than those white families - "heavy users," fast-food regulars call them - who tend to buy the $6 meals.

I worried when the boys first applied to McDonald's. I was surprised to see how smart the operators were at training the kids in the chain's careful system, using simple-interface technologies to keep workers busy but seldom overwhelmed. The boys liked working there. They played basketball with the guys after work. They led the Mexican fry cooks, mostly women, in choruses of "Besame Mucho." Kiss me a lot.

They were happy enough to grow into better things. "But I don't think students like us could speak for everyone," added Mark. "People who depend on those jobs, I think they expect to be working at McDonald's for the next 50 years."

Minimum wage or not, the union is going to have to reach all those groups if it really hopes to organize the fast-food factories, where so many working lives start, and end.


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @PhillyJoeD. Read his blog at www.philly.com/phillydeals.

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