Strikers may get an unexpected result

September 03, 2013

Will the walkout prompt new spending on fast-food technologies to replace workers?

The sooner fast-food workers earn higher salaries, the more compelled franchisees will be to replace them with technology in the kitchen and at the front-end.

If they were to suddenly earn $15 per hour and have the right to unionize, as sought in their coast-to-coast strike last Thursday, The Lempert Report believes fewer would keep their jobs—and fast-food production and selling would become more automated.

This would sting workers who felt they had nothing to lose by speaking up on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  But it’s a plausible development we anticipate.

Machines could do simple processes in the back, such as wrapping burgers with paper.  By the counter, touch-screen orders and separate lines for credit card or EZ-Pass types of payments could speed customer flow, increase order accuracy, and reduce staff counts.  These are just a few examples where fast-feeders could improve inefficient operations, satisfy customers, and replace workers.

Unfortunately, fast-feeders are squeezed by ubiquitous convenience stores and drug stores, as well as food trucks, low-priced specials at fast-casual chains, rising ingredients costs, and consumers’ desire to save.  Add a 200%+ staff turnover rate to this picture, and ask why operators would want to pay more than twice the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour?  Well, they don’t.

No doubt it hurts to be part of the nation’s working poor.  The minimum wage has stagnated since 2009, and while President Barack Obama has expressed support for a $9 per hour minimum, there’s no timeline.  In fast food, the National Employment Law Project offers some grim numbers:  only 2.2% of its jobs are managerial, the national median age of its hourly workers is 28 (clearly not teens), and more than 25% of its workers are raising children.

The walkout was passionate and visible, and mindful of America’s union legacy.  However, it will take more than one strike to achieve this goal.  If and when that happens, operators may readily go to their Plan B of technology.


Click here for: Minumum wage map