Future Fast Food Strikes?

Several hundred fast food workers have walked off their jobs at McDonalds, Burger Kings, Taco Bells, et al in New York City, where most earn the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

At the moment the media seems to be treating the walk-out as more of a novelty than anything else—the Times is reporting it on their City Room blog.  Commenters around the Web are fairly universal in saying that challenging the fast-food giants isn’t going to work.

I’d suggest, though, that this could be a distant early signal of a labor trend that we may see increasingly as the decade goes on—indeed, a labor trend that may be necessary just to keep the American economy working.

More and more of the new jobs we’re seeing in this recovery are service jobs.  In larger cities, college grads compete with each other to land jobs folding shirts at J. Crew or steaming milk at Starbucks.   Blue collar jobs are already being automated or outsourced, and low- and mid-level white collar jobs are next.  In the long run, the functions that can’t be moved into cyberspace involve actually giving customers physical goods or providing hands-on services, like home health care attendants.

These are the jobs that will still be here in 2020.   These are also, however, jobs that rarely produce either a living wage or a career path.  In a sense they are like the factory jobs of the early 20th century, before unions and the American labor movement.

I’m acutely aware of all the optimistic arguments that say as old jobs are automated, new jobs appear—new jobs with higher wages that require more intellect, jobs that machines can’t do.  But I’m not sure that’s always going to be true as we begin to automate more and more white-collar positions and put intelligent robots to work.

It’s generally assumed on both sides of the political aisle that a healthy, thriving middle class is crucial to the American economy.  But that’s not how the future is shaping up.

So we may have a choice: do we increase the wages of service workers, as we did with factory workers a century ago, and give them a path into the middle class?  Or do we increasingly redistribute income via the government through measures like the earned income tax credit?

I think the first option—raising service industry wages—is a healthier alternative than a permanently shrinking middle class.  But that will require employers to go along, and that’s not going to happen without things like fast food strikes.

On the other hand, it may already be too late for that.  Behind the scenes even fast food automation is moving ahead quickly.  By 2020 you may be ordering on an iPad and picking up your meal from a conveyor belt, with few low-wage service workers in sight.