Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Published in 2001

At a 1999 conference on foodservice equipment, top American executives from Burger King, McDonald’s, and Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc. (the owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) appeared together on a panel to discuss labor shortages, employee training, computerization, and the latest kitchen technology. At the time the three corporations employed about 3.7 million people worldwide, operating about 60,000 restaurants, opening a new one every two hours. Putting aside their intense rivalry for customers, the executives had realized at a gathering the previous evening that when it came to labor issues, they were incomplete agreement: “We are aligned as a team to support this industry,” Dave Brewer, vice president of engineering at KFC explained.

One of the most important goals they held in common was the redesign of kitchen equipment so that less money needed to be spent training workers. “Make the equipment intuitive, make it so that the job is easier to do right than to do wrong,” advised Jerry Sus, the leading equipment systems engineer at McDonald’s. “The easier it is for the worker to use, the easier it is for us not to have to train him.” John Reckert – director of strategic operations and of research and development at Burger King – felt optimistic about the benefits that new technology would bring to the industry. “We can develop equipment that only works one way,” Reckert said. ‘There are many different ways today that employees can abuse our product, mess up the flow . . . . If the equipment only allows one process, there’s very little to train.”

Instead of giving written instructions to crew members, another panelist suggested, rely as much as possible on photographs of menu items, and “if there are instructions, make them very simple, write them at a fifth-grade level, and write them in Spanish and English. All the executives agreed that “zero-training” was the fast food industry’s ideal, though it might not ever be attained.

While thus quietly spending enormous sums on research and technology to eliminate employee training, the fat food chains have accepted hundreds of millions of millions of dollars in government subsidies for “training” workers. Through federal programs such as Targeted Jobs Tax Credit and its successor, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, the chains have for years claimed tax credits of up to $2,400 for each new low-income worker they hired. In 1996 an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that 92 percent of these workers would have been hired by the companies anyway – and that their new jobs were part-time, provided little training, and came with no benefits. These federal subsidy programs were created to reward American companies that gave job training to the poor.

Attempts to end these subsidies have been strenuously opposed by the National Council of Chain Restaurants and its allies in Congress. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit program was renewed in 1996. It offered as much as $385 million in subsidies the following year. Fast food restaurants had to employ a worker for only four hundred hours to receive the federal money – and then could get more money as soon as that worker quit and was replaced. American taxpayers have in effected subsidized the industry’s high turnover rate, providing company tax breaks for workers who are employed for just a few months and receive no training.

The industry front group formed to defend these government subsidies is called the “Committee for Employment Opportunities”. Its chief lobbyist, Bill Signer, told the Houston Chronicle there was nothing wrong with the use of federal subsidies to create low-paying, low-skilled, short-term jobs for the poor. Trying to justify the minimal amount of training given to these workers, Signer said, “They’ve got to crawl before they can walk.”

The employees who the fast food industry expects to crawl are by far the biggest group of low-wage workers in the United States today. The nation has about 1 million migrant farm workers and about 3.5 million fast food workers. Although picking strawberries is orders of magnitude more difficult than cooking hamburgers both jobs are now filled by people who are generally young, unskilled, and willing to work long hours for low pay. Moreover, the turnover rates for both jobs are among the highest in the American economy. The annual turnover rate in the fast food industry is now about 300 to 400 percent. The typical fast food worker quits or is fired every three to four months.

The fast food industry pays the minimum wage to a higher proportion of its workers than any other American industry. Consequently, a low minimum wage has long been a crucial part of the fast food industry’s business plan. Between 1968 and 1990, the years when the fast food chains expanded at their fastest rate, the real value of he U.S. minimum age fell by almost 40 percent. In the late 1990s, the real value of the U.S. minimum wage still remained about 27 percent lower that it was in the late 1960s. nevertheless, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) has vehemently opposed any rise in the minimum wage at the federal, state, or local level. About sixty large food-service companies – including Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, Chevy’s, and Red Lobster – have backed congressional legislation that would essential eliminate the federal minimum wage by allowing states to disregard it. Peter Meersman, the president of the Colorado Restaurant Association, advocates creating a federal guest worker program to import low-wage foodservice workers from overseas.

While the real value of the wages paid to restaurant workers has declined for the past three decades, the earnings of restaurant company executives have risen considerably. According to a 1997 survey in National Restaurant News, the average corporate executive bonus was $131,000, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year. Increasing the federal minimum wage by a dollar would add about two cents to the cost of a fast food hamburger. . .

Afterward for the paperback edition:

There is one criticism of Fast Food Nation that needs to be addressed. A number of people have said that I was too hard on the Republican Party, that an anti-Republican bias seemed to pervade the book. Fast Food Nation has no hidden partisan agenda; the issues that it addresses transcend party politics. In retrospect, I could have been more critical of the Clinton administration’s ties to agribusiness. Had I devoted more space to the poultry industry, for example, I would have examined the close links between Bill Clinton and the Tyson family. The FDA’s failure to to investigate the health risks of biotech foods and its lackadaisical effort to keep cattle remains out of cattle feed also occurred during the Clinton years.

Nevertheless, it is a sad but undeniable fact that for the past two decades the right wing of the Republican Party has worked closely with the fast food industry and the meatpacking industry to oppose food safety laws, worker safety laws, and increases in the minimum wage. . . . :

More than a decade has passed since Fast Food Nation was published, and I’d love to report that the book is out of date, that the many problems it describes have be solved... Sadly, that is not the case. . .


  1. It is a sad but undeniable fact that for the past two decades the right wing of the Republican Party has worked closely with the fast food industry and the meatpacking industry to oppose food safety laws, worker safety laws, and increases in the minimum wage.

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