We Need Fast Food Unions

THE BOSTICK REPORT-The following is an incomplete list of reasons why we should encourage the unionization of fast food workers. It is based on the premise that fast food is more detrimental to our economy in the long run than it is beneficial. In other words, fast food offers very little value to us in the long term for a variety of reasons, not all of which are discussed below, and the unionization of its workforce would help to ameliorate some issues discussed. 

First, fast food is a primary driver in our obesity epidemic because it is too cheap and readily accessible. 

Unionizing the fast food labor force will not change the fact that fast food’s engineering, based on high fat and salt content, is unhealthy. I only mention it to underscore that this industry takes more from our society than it gives. 

The low cost of that food, however, should not be protected. Because it is so readily accessible and cheap, too many people rely on too many meals from these providers. Permitting a union to collectively bargain would inevitably result in higher wages and better benefits, mainly because wages and benefits are so poor as it currently stands. 

The counter argument that industry proponents give, that rises in wages will lead to rises in prices for consumers, is a good thing in this case simply because the low cost of the product makes it more accessible and that accessibility has resulted in an obesity epidemic. Raising prices to cover higher wages could be done to scale in the sense that those prices could rise in a manner that keeps profits on par with the cheaper version, even with people eating less of it. 

Why should we care about the obesity epidemic? Toss out any morality on this issue and look at the bottom line. 

Every year, diseases and medical problems caused by obesity add $190 billion to our nation’s healthcare tab. That’s nearly a quarter of the total healthcare costs each year. 

Want more numbers? Obesity costs more than $60 billion in the Medicaid and Medicare system each year, $164 billion in productivity is lost each year, and childhood obesity costs hover around $14 billion a year. All this (and more) is projected to contribute to an estimated loss of productivity of nearly $600 billion to our economy each year by 2030. 

Second, fast food is a continuation of 20th century “abundance economics” that is not sustainable. 

The fast food model is built on convenience, affordability, and speed. The affordability factor is largely determined by low labor costs, but it’s also dependent on what I call “abundance economics”. That is, the materials necessary to create the product must be abundantly cheap in order to profit on high volume of sales. Basically, fast food is cheap because the source materials are cheap and we eat a lot of it. 

Think of it in terms of how North America was colonized. Settlers came over from Europe, encountered an endless forest, and went to town clear cutting. Once the trees were leveled, turned into lumber, and sold to Europe, the formerly inaccessible fertile land was farmed to death. No worries, because there was also more forest to level and virgin land to farm just down the road. 

Reality turned out to be contrary to this “abundance economics” approach and we eventually hit the Pacific Ocean where we had to begin to at least consider more practical management of our resources so that they would be sustainable. Whether we’ve succeeded fully at that is up for debate, but you get the idea. 


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With current free trade markets opening up access to lettuce, pickles, beef, sesame seeds, cheese parts, onion powders, and every other part of the internal commodities market in the global food chain, fast food is able to continue growing and profiting in the short term by exploiting less sustainable practices supported by emerging market nations. 

In other words, they can get cheaper ingredients by playing international markets against each other, driving down the prices. This is achieved abroad by pursuing the same kind of abundance ideology we practiced here in colonial times. As we all know, this is not sustainable in the long term. Reality is that there will be an end to access for the resources fast food corporations seek out to keep their products cheaper, but the nation-less, faceless corporations won’t have to worry about the crash in that market because they will already have pocketed those profits. 

A union, however, representing the laborers, will have impetus to ensure business practices are more sustainable because laborers will never garner enough wages to “cash out” when the abundance ends. They will still need to work, and therefore, their unions will want to ensure there is a long-term job available or the union will die. The collective voice of the laborers would then be a counter-weight to unfettered abuse of cheap abundance. 

Third, fast food currently pays poverty wages that are only sustainable through backdoor subsidies paid for by taxpayers in the form of section 8 housing vouchers and food stamps. 

No one can actually live off of $9/hr here in Los Angeles. We hear the clamor of raising the wage and our mayor has expressed his much-needed intention of raising the minimum wage in the city to $13.25. That’s great, but even at that level, is it enough? Not really. 

As it currently stands, the average rent in Los Angeles hovers around $1,400-1,500 per month. Working full time, a single mother of one child living in Los Angeles would still qualify for food stamps at $13/hr as her monthly gross income at full time would be just about $2,080. At the current minimum wage, that full time fast food worker grosses a mere $1,440.  Neither wage is enough, but $13 is “more enough”. 

With that knowledge, I ask you: why are we willing to continue subsidizing an industry that has absolutely no intention of elevating its workers’ salaries and is overly reliant on our social safety networks to perpetuate poverty wages? Do you want your hard-earned tax dollars propping up McDonald’s? 

A union collectively bargaining for its employees would provide those workers with a tool to raise those wages and help get them out of the social safety network, at least somewhat, and any job loss within the fast food sector would be outpaced by the decrease in the industry’s overall burden to our social safety network costs. 

Fourth, fast food undermines mom and pop restaurants, disempowering the individual. 

Many advantages coalesce to ensure the dominance of fast food over local restaurants. One is the surety of product. Go to any McDonald’s and you will find essentially the same thing as any other McDonald’s. Compounding the uniformity of product is the corporate branding via national advertising. 

The corporate marketing budget for television, radio, and Internet advertising collectively promotes fast food restaurants over locally owned mom and pop stores. As mentioned earlier, fast food chains also benefit more from access to international access to cheaper ingredients than mom and pops do. 

Both of these advantages, brand advertising and free trade access, are buoyed by greater access to capital and lose bankruptcy laws, thus permitting corporations to leverage lower prices to undermine the bottom lines of every single person hoping to pursue the American Dream of being a “small business owner”. 

This isn’t to say that any of those advantages for fast food are necessarily wrong, illegal, or that we can (or should) even unravel those advantages. But, in an increasingly nation-less corporate world, they constitute an undertow diminishing the equitable access to opportunity and thus, upward mobility for the individual. 

Providing the workers of fast food restaurants a union would help to at least provide for better wages and benefits, helping to eliminate the additional advantage fast food has over mom and pops in their labor bottom line. 

Finally, fast food labor practices are foundational issues undermining the middle class. 

They are the driver of jobs lacking in any substantial career paths. Furthermore, the very nature of a fast food labor force, one that is easily replaceable, because it is one of low-skilled workers processing manufactured food, fits squarely within the historical context of America’s labor unions rise to prominence in the early 20th century. 

Like coal miners, meat packing plant workers, and any position along the assembly line of the industrial age, fast food employment is a market that does not rely on individual labor talents. That replace-ability erodes the hierarchy of American wages form the ground floor. As service-employment pays less and less, comparative salaries of jobs up the wage pyramid can pay less, too, because they still represent relatively more pay than the bottom. 

Therefore, the introduction of unions within fast food employment will act as a floor in the fall of the middle class. Buoy the bottom and you become the foundation of the rest. All other wages are tacitly compared to fast food. 

And let’s remember, the more money labor wields, the more a consumer-based economy like ours thrives.


(Odysseus Bostick is a Los Angeles teacher and former candidate for the Los Angeles City Council. He writes The Bostick Report for CityWatch.)









Vol 12 Issue 73

Pub: Sep 9, 2014