What’s Really at Stake in Fast-Food Worker Strikes?

To hear fast-food workers tell it, tough times call for tough measures. That’s why a lot of them are taking to the streets to demand a higher minimum wage. Over just the last week alone, thousands of such workers have fanned out across the country demanding their minimum hourly rate be doubled to $15.

Continue Reading Below

Let’s just say, be careful what you wish for. Because those same tough times are also calling for tough measures on the part of those folks’ bosses. Whether fast-food giants are preparing for a higher minimum wage, or worse, doing so because their costs are “already” high, more bosses are automating now, and dealing with the fallout later.

Battling an extended sales slump, McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) is expanding a test concept built around “tablet-ordering.” The customer punches in his order on a tablet, down to desired toppings, then waits for an employee to bring it over (or if going through drive-thru, hand it over).

In today’s Washington Post, Drew Harwell writes of this growing “move towards dehumanization.” But it’s a move that’s apparently tested pretty well for McDonald’s when it piloted such a program last winter across San Diego.

McDonald’s is hardly the first fast-food powerhouse to give customers the power at the register. As Harwell writes, Applebee’s, Panera Bread and Chili’s have already expanded their human-less ordering options. The restaurants claim they are delighted at the results, and say that many customers applaud the speedier, no nonsense service. Orders come out exactly as those who punched them in intended, so restaurant owners say it cuts down on complaints; and don’t even get them started on how easy and tempting it is now for customers to splurge on extra appetizers and desserts when all they have to do is punch and binge.

But think about what’s really going on here. For one thing, it’s a cost-saver for restaurants, and the cost-savings are coming in an environment of a $7.25 minimum wage. So with no hike in workers’ hourly rates, a lot of fast-food bosses are cutting their overhead now. Perhaps they’re bracing for those higher wages; perhaps they’re just being prudent. Or maybe they’re seeing the writing on the wall and figuring in the cash-bleeding franchise business, you cut your expenses where you can whenever you can.

Workers should probably take note. They’ve already seen many of their shops move toward automated drink and condiment stands. It doesn’t take a frialator to see where all this is going.

So it’s probably not the wisest of strategies for a lot of these workers to be skipping a day behind the food line to join a picket line. Next time, their bosses just might tell them – it’s ok, you needn’t come back.