Seattle Aims at McDonald’s, Hits Workers

7/4/17
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.,
from The Wall Street Journal,
6/30/17:

A $15 minimum wage changes the basic labor-market bargain between the fast-food industry and its workers.

By now you have read 15 articles on the Seattle minimum-wage fiasco. Since the city boosted its local minimum from $9.47 in 2014 to $13 last year (on its way to $15), a detailed investigation by University of Washington economists finds that beneficiaries actually saw their incomes fall by a net $125 a month because employers cut their hours. When the price of something goes up, buyers demand less of it. This law of economics, like any law, some will always find inconvenient. But here’s the rest of the story. The impetus came from people who don’t actually earn the minimum wage—labor-union leaders and think-tankers and activist organizations. The Service Employees International Union, as it has been happy to tell anyone, including a writer for the Atlantic Monthly two years ago, was already plowing $30 million into the “fight for $15” even though virtually all the hoped-for benefits would go to nonmembers. There was even pushback from various union locals. Was this really a good use of our dues when most members already earn well above the minimum and have other priorities? As the union also was not shy about noting, the real target was a very specific company, McDonald’s , which SEIU dreams of organizing despite the historically unwelcoming nature of franchise-based industries.

Organizers look fondly to Denmark, where a McDonald’s line worker receives $41,000 a year and five weeks of paid vacation. As the Atlantic put it two years ago, “Unionizing workers at McDonald’s and other fast-food chains might be a long shot, but if it succeeds, it might help lift a million or more workers into the middle class (or at least into the lower middle class) and create a model for low-wage workers in other industries.” This sounds pretty but is misleading in a fundamental way. The workers a McDonald’s franchise would hire at $15 an hour are different from those it would hire at $8.29, the average earned by a fast-food worker today. Costs would go up. The industry would likely shrink, it would likely replace workers with automation, but it would still create jobs at $15 an hour for people whose productivity can justify $15 an hour. The people who work at McDonald’s today, typically, would already be earning $15 an hour somewhere else if their productivity could justify $15 an hour. Everybody needs to start somewhere, including the unskilled and those who lack a work history. Some need a job that doesn’t demand much of them. They have other obligations. They accept less pay to maximize flexibility and freedom from responsibility. They don’t plan to make a career of it. The fast-food industry in America is built on such people. When President Obama joined the fight in 2015, he argued that a full-time job should be able to support a family. This sounded pretty too, but was a way of saying that jobs that won’t support a family shouldn’t exist, and people whose productivity won’t support a family shouldn’t have jobs. This is curious. Many countries that set a minimum wage, including the U.S., also set subminimum wages for teenagers, trainees, probationary hires, certain categories of disabled persons, etc. Having both a minimum and subminimum is hard to reconcile logically: Low-paying jobs shouldn’t exist, except some people need low-paying jobs, so they should exist. This concession to reality, in fact, shows not all minimum-wage advocates are economic scofflaws. SEIU signed off on the “fight for $15” as part of a convoluted scheme to bring unionization to McDonald’s. As all would admit privately, the idea was always pie in the sky.

Now SEIU’s spending priorities have been changing again. Lately the leadership has arguably rediscovered its first love, electoral politics, not organizing. The union has let it be known that the “fight for $15” will be scaled back to free up funds to fight the 2018 congressional elections and 2020 presidential race. No doubt the Seattle study and all the attention it’s getting in the media make the decision even easier.

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