August 3, 2013
Fast-food workers have begun protesting their low wages. (Yes, I know fast food isn’t good for you, but that’s immaterial here.) “We are worth more,” their signs read.
Are they? How can they know? If they were worth more, other firms would have captured their extra worth by bidding them away from the fast-food industry and hiring them themselves. Then we can know they were “worth more,” at least in some other line of production.
Since no one else seems willing to hire them at their current wage rate, it seems to me that the very last institutions they should be angry at are the fast-food restaurants themselves, the only institutions on earth doing anything to improve their standard of living. Why don’t they protest all the places that pay them $0, having refused to hire them at all?
It’s hard to make ends meet when you work in a fast-food restaurant. No kidding. These are the ultimate entry-level jobs. You can either use them for advancement within the restaurant, or as evidence to future employers of your reliability. Or you can have zero ambition, make no real effort to improve yourself or acquire a skill — even though your local library or the Internet makes it possible for you to train yourself in most anything for free these days — and complain that your only benefactor on earth isn’t paying your true value. A stark choice.
Articles written in support of the strikers claim the restaurants could increase the workers’ pay by raising the prices of their food. This gives the game away: the real constraint on these workers’ pay, as this concession inadvertently reveals, is erected by the consumers. So the logic here is: we can help some poor people by hurting other poor people.
I’m leaving out the standard analysis of the minimum wage — they are asking for a $15 “living wage” — because it’s fairly well known. But I should at least point out: whether this measure will indeed help the workers in the first place is an open question. Some will be fired. More automation will be introduced. Those who remain will see their fringe benefits reduced, or have fewer breaks, or be asked to do more.
“We are worth more,” demand people performing a task that could be done by anyone off the street after an hour of training. Instead of being amazed that they can earn anything at all with no skills to speak of, they are enraged that they aren’t making a comfortable living performing a task as simple as fast-food preparation.
Finally, how do wage rates rise on the free market? I explain here.