Posts Tagged ‘fast food’

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Food production has been a problem throughout the history of American capitalism.

Back in 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to portray the harsh working conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrializing cities.* However, it seems, many readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early-twentieth century. Thus, Sinclair quipped: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

A century later, Richard Linklater directed the film Fast Food Nation, which was loosely based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling 2001 non-fiction book of the same name. Like Sinclair, Linklater focused on the working conditions in the slaughterhouses, to which he added fast-food restaurants—and, like Sinclair, he exposed the role exploited immigrants played in lowering costs and increasing profits in the American food industry.

The farm-to-table movement was supposed to change all that—with happy animals, humane working conditions, and foods sourced from local farmers. However, as Andrea Reusing [ht: db] explains, the authenticity attributed to the preparation and serving of good that is local, organic, and sustainable has increasingly “slipped further away from the food movement and into the realms of foodie-ism and corporate marketing.” Thus

it is increasingly unhitched from the issues it is so often assumed to address.

Farm-to-table’s sincere glow distracts from how the production and processing of even the most pristine ingredients — from field or dock or slaughterhouse to restaurant or school cafeteria — is nearly always configured to rely on cheap labor. Work very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.

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There are, in fact, over 7.5 million food-preparation workers in the United States, who earn less than $10.50 an hour—which comes to less than $21,000 a year. Many of those workers are immigrants, both documented and undocumented.**

Over the course of the past century, we’ve moved from the meatpacking industry to the food-service sector. But the problems identified by Sinclair and Linklater remain: exploited workers and immigrants that are subjected to inhumane treatment during the process of immigration and on the job.

As a chef herself, Reusing follows the lead of Sinclair and Linklater in suggesting that

As chefs, we need to talk more about the economic realities of our kitchens and dining rooms and allow eaters to begin to experience them as we do: imperfect places where abundance and hope exist beside scarcity and compromise. Places that are weakened by the same structural inequality that afflicts every aspect of American life.

 

*Sinclair’s novel was first published in serial form in 1905 in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason and published the next year as a book by Doubleday.

**Overall, according to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative (pdf), the American food system employs over 21.5 million workers, making it the largest source of employment in the United States. Eleven million workers are in the food service sector, comprising more than half of the food chain.

Fast Food Workers Protest For Increased Wages Ahead Of McDonald's Annual Shareholder Meeting

One week ago, the McDonald’s Corporation reported a 35-percent increase in profits (from $811.5 million in the period last year to $1.1 billion) in the quarter that ended 31 March. A few days later, former McDonald’s President and CEO Ed Rensi published an opinion piece in Forbes to explain why raising the minimum wage would be a huge mistake.

Let’s do the math: A typical franchisee sells about $2.6 million worth of burgers, fries, shakes and Happy Meals each year, leaving them with $156,000 in profit. If that franchisee has 15 part-time employees on staff earning minimum wage, a $15 hourly pay requirement eats up three-quarters of their profitability. (In reality, the costs will be much higher, as the company will have to fund raises further up the pay scale.) For some locations, a $15 minimum wage wipes out their entire profit.

Recouping those costs isn’t as simple as raising prices. If it were easy to add big price increases to a meal, it would have already been done without a wage hike to trigger it. In the real world, our industry customers are notoriously sensitive to price increases. (If you’re a McDonald’s regular, there’s a reason you gravitate towards an extra-value meal or the dollar menu.) Instead, franchisees can absorb the cost with a change that customers don’t mind: The substitution of a self-service computer kiosk for a a full-service employee.

What Rensi doesn’t mention is that U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing McDonald’s profits.

As Ken Jacobs reports,

Workers like Terrence Wise, a 35-year-old father who works part-time at McDonald’s and Burger King in Kansas City, Mo., and his fiancée Myosha Johnson, a home care worker, are among millions of families in the U.S. who work an average of 38 hours per week but still rely on public assistance. Wise is paid $8.50 an hour at his McDonald’s job and $9 an hour at Burger King. Johnson is paid just above $10 an hour, even after a decade in her field. Wise and Johnson together rely on $240 a month in food stamps to feed their three kids, a cost borne by taxpayers.

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In fact, according to a study by Jacobs, Ian Perry, and Jenifer MacGillvary (pdf) for the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 52 percent of fast-food workers make so little that they’re are on some form of public assistance.*

That’s the social cost of McDonald’s (and other fast-food corporations’) private profits.

 

*Note also in the chart above the following observation about nominally non-profit higher education in the United States: “high reliance on public assistance programs among workers isn’t found only in service occupations. Fully one-quarter of part-time college faculty and their families are enrolled in at least one of the public assistance programs analyzed in this report.”

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It comes as no surprise that the International Franchise Association chief executive Robert Cresanti condemned yesterday’s protests organized by the Fight for $15 movement.

What is interesting is that Cresanti opposed a $15 minimum wage  because, in his view, it “does not help close the income inequality gap” and isn’t the appropriate answer to “the growing economic divide in America.”

Low Wage Protest

Protests for pay of at least $15 an hour and a union for fast-food and other low-wage workers (including adjunct professors) are taking place around the United States today, marking the biggest effort yet in an ongoing campaign by labor organizers.

In addition to the protests in the US, workers in 123 cities in 35 countries were expected to join the demonstrations in the first worldwide coordinated strike.

“Workers occupied a McDonald’s in Glasgow, stormed a McDonald’s restaurant in Sao Paolo and blockaded a McDonald’s in Paris, holding a six-meter long sign that read, ‘Stop Social Destruction and Tax Avoidance’,” organizers said in a statement.

The world-wide protests were coordinated by the International Union of Food Workers.

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