Now, everyone knows how poorly fast-food jobs pay. They also know why this is supposed to be okay: fast-food workers are teenagers, they don’t have kids or college degrees, and it’s an entry-level job. Hell, it’s virtually a form of national service, the economic boot camp that has replaced the two years our fathers had to give to the armed forces.
Every one of these soothing shibboleths was contradicted by what I saw in North Carolina. These days, fast-food workers are often adults, they often do have children, and I met at least one college grad among the protesters in Raleigh. Why are things like this? Because a job is a job, and in times as lean as ours, the Golden Arches may be the only game in town, regardless of qualifications and degrees.
What people who repeat these things also don’t know is how much effort has gone into keeping fast-food pay so low, despite the enormous profits raked in by the chains. In fact, the conditions of employment have been engineered almost as carefully as the brands and the burgers — engineered to achieve the complete interchangeability of workers.
In his classic Fast Food Nation (2001), Eric Schlosser describes the industry’s manic pursuit of standardization. The food arrives at the restaurant mostly frozen; the machines that do the cooking are foolproof; virtually no skills are required. “Jobs that have been ‘de-skilled’ can be filled cheaply,” writes Schlosser. “The need to retain any individual worker is greatly reduced by the ease with which he or she can be replaced.”
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