Should McDonald’s fire everyone?

By Ezra Butler on August 22nd, 2013

McDonald’s is symbolic of American industry, with a massive $95 billion market capitalisation, and could effect real change if it so chose. From its beginnings, McDonald’s embraced heightened efficiency in its kitchen, employing a Henry Ford-inspired assembly line for hamburgers. The early McDonald’s kitchen was largely mechanised and boasted an extremely limited menu, to maintain the lowest possible prices for diners. Many of the employees during its initial decades were students, looking to earn extra money.

Two decades ago, almost half of the McDonalds’ workforce was under the age of twenty. Now, it is roughly a third. The average salary has, when factoring in inflation, remained roughly the same: a sizeable percentage of the company’s employees receive governmental Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as “food stamps”, to help purchase food for their families.

Unlike twenty or thirty years ago, there is very little opportunity for upward mobility in the fast food industry now. Most employees are glad for the chance simply to be employed. That Jeff Stratton and Jan Fields, respectively the current and previous presidents of McDonald’s USA, both started working at entry-level positions is aspirational mythology, not reality, for most. It should come as no surprise, then, that fast food restaurant workers in the US have been conducting a series of strikes across the country to request the ability to unionise and earn a living wage.

The chain still does automate a lot: the oil used for the fryers is completely regulated by computers. The move to increased automation raised the quality of the food and minimised the potential for employee accidents and grease fires. There are risks associated with having human workers, after all, like the hepatitis scare four years ago or meats being cooked at unsafe levels. McDonald’s hamburgers are already considered the Dorian Gray of fast food items.

How expensive would it be for McDonald’s to mechanise the entire process, from a smartphone ordering system to the delivery of freshly cooked food? Israel has already had an “automatic teller machine” for fresh pizza for almost a decade. Japan has one that makes cheeseburgers. A San Francisco-based startup called Momentum Machines boasts the ability to make a better burger for cheaper using their technology.

This is for a very specific niche, to be fair: cheap calorie-dense food.

Chains like Chipotle, Chop’t and Five Guys, though, will still charge a premium for freshly sourced ingredients and human chefs, whilst properly training their employees and paying them a living wage. A dishwasher or line-cook would be able to move up, like in many finer dining establishments.

From a purely technological and health viewpoint, it seems like a non-question. But nothing is ever that simple.

How much financial damage would be caused to low-income areas were McDonald’s to completely automate their facilities and declare a majority of their employees redundant? How many people already living hand-to-mouth who go homeless and hungry in a matter of weeks?

Of course, a number of those workers would be able to be educated at Hamburger University to become cheeseburger machine technicians. Others would stay in a secondary capacity to ensure the smooth operation of the franchise. It wouldn’t be a sudden mass firing, and the entry-level position will become better paying.

Currently, the moral cost for a Happy Meal is already unbearably high; subsidised by government handouts. Two years ago, researchers at Cambridge predicted that riots instigated by the cost of food would occur by August 2013. Yet, the riots would not be triggered by the cost of food, the high prices would create the unrest necessary for revolt. Perhaps to prove the point, the MIT Technology Review posted an article last month linking recent riots amongst South African miners to inability to feed their families.

With the tinderboxes of racial and class tensions building over the past three years in the US, contrasted with the growing culture of “foodies” fuelled by Top Chef and The Food Network, how much more will minimum-wage food service earners take?

McDonald’s should retake the reins as the industry leader and begin the process of automation and education. The lowered costs of labour would enable the company to source slightly quality ingredients cooked correctly every time. In the long run, its shareholders and its kids’ meals would both be happier.