There was an odd, but interesting, op-ed at the Washington Post's website yesterday by James Franco. (The actor.) In it, he wrote about working at McDonald's as a teen. The piece, entitled "McDonald's was there for me when no one else was," is actually kind of delightful; I suggest you give it a read. After dropping out of UCLA, Franco needed to find work because his parents wouldn't support him while he went to acting school. Here's how he stumbled into the gig at Mickey D's:
I had very little work experience. In high school, I was fired from a coffee shop for reading behind the counter and from a golf course for reading while driving the cart on the driving range. All the waiter jobs were taken by more experienced actor/waiters.
Someone asked me if I was too good to work at McDonald’s. Because I was following my acting dream despite all the pressure not to, I was definitely nottoo good to work at McDonald’s. I went to the nearest Mickey D’s and was hired the same day.
Look at what Franco is saying here: He had no experience, he wasn't a terribly committed employee, and he needed something that literally anyone can do. McDonald's hired him the same day. The lesson? McDonald's is not terribly picky and frequently relies on transient, unskilled labor.
And you know what this tells us? This work isn't worth $15 per hour. Employees who do it are, frankly, overpaid at $7.25 per hour, the current federal minimum wage. This is not because they are bad people. It's because they are doing work that requires minimal brainpower and often entails standing around not doing a whole lot. It's work that you can train someone to do in a single shift. Franco's anecdotes ring true: screwing around in the drive thru window, awkward "office" romances, snatching fries right out of the oil in violation of any number of health code violations, the annoyance of dealing with families.*
I think one of the reasons that Franco's op-ed has annoyed so many people (just poke around on Twitter) is that he is articulating a very inconvenient truth about the low value of the labor he provided. Needless to say, the outragemongers at Salon were very upset at Franco for publishing a piece that was "light, airy, and full of privileged sh*t":
Franco doesn’t discuss McDonald’s history of brutal working conditions — of 25-hour shifts, of wage theft and negligent employee injury policies. He didn’t discuss McLibel, or the corporation’s history of hiding ingredients, or how most employees of the chain will never be offered a lucrative Pizza Hut Super Bowl commercial which might allow them to leave the job for good.
Franco's explicitly apolitical op-ed is, apparently, verboten. The only proper way to talk about fast food employment is through the lens of victimhood. If you're not authoring a treatise on exploitation, your words hold no value.
This, frankly, is horseshit. Fast food employment is employment that is best suited for children or young adults with no skills. It's best suited for those with no skills who want to find work quickly. Fast food employment is not a public works program. It is not reasonable to expect a place that offers $1.29 McDoubles to employ the primary breadwinner of a family of four. I feel pity for the people stuck in these jobs. But it's not the fault of their employer.
Granted, the ideal employee at McDonald's or Burger King or wherever is someone who sticks around a bit longer than three months. But fast food restaurants are a useful safety valve for society, a handy place a young person with no skills can pop in for a while to get by. If we close off those avenues of employment—if we make it too expensive to hire labor, forcing a reduction in employment in the sector—we hurt the most vulnerable job seekers.
Flipping burgers isn't a vocation. This isn't to say you can't make a career at McDonald's—store manager positions pay pretty well, given the lack of education needed to do the job, and many franchise owners started by dropping fries. But it's idiotic to expect a low-margin, high-turnover industry that literally anyone with half-a-brain can do to serve as permanent employment for a whole class of workers. Not to mention totally unsustainable.
*Trust me: I know. I worked at a McDonald's from the age of 15 to 18. It was great work: easy and overpaid.