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Worker Wage Demands Prompt Move toward Automation
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October 26, 2014, 01:50 PM
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The unskilled fast food workers engaged in the “Fight for $15? campaign (or Lucha por 15 in Spanish)are cutting their own throats at the direction of unions because smart machines are ready and able to take their jobs.

Machines already exist that can do the cooking: Robot Serves Up 360 Hamburgers per Hour.

But the Wall Street Journal says McDonalds will move toward “technology. . . to order and pay for food digitally.” That means some sort of touchscreen gizmo that takes that takes orders, like the tablet shown below:

Tablets that take orders are already in use and aren’t as big an investment as robot burger cooks — Chili’s had 45,000 tablets in its restaurants as of January. But McDonald’s certainly must see the mechanized future of fast food and is planning accordingly for more advanced devices. Other food chains are taking notice as well that there are other choices besides of raising employee wages.

Restaurant automation is another example of humans becoming less necessary to production. Oxford University forecast last year that 45 percent of US jobs were vulnerable to robots or computerization in the next two decades. Another estimate is that one in three jobs will be done by smart machines by 2025 — that’s just 11 years from now.

Somebody should inform Washington that the correct number of immigrants in the post-human economy is Zero.

Here’s the WSJ’s pronouncement on the move to automation:

Minimum Wage Backfire, Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2014

McDonald’s moves to automate orders to reduce worker costs.

If there’s a silver lining for McDonald’s in Tuesday’s dreadful earnings report, it is that perhaps union activists will begin to understand that the fast-food chain cannot solve the problems of the Obama economy. The world’s largest restaurant company reported a 30% decline in quarterly profits on a 5% drop in revenues. Problems under the golden arches were global—sales were weak in China, Europe and the United States.

So even one of the world’s most ubiquitous consumer brands cannot print money at its pleasure. This may be news to liberal pressure groups that have lately been demanding that government order the chain known for cheap food to somehow pay higher wages.

Unions have made McDonald’s a particular target of their campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage and have even protested at corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. The pressure was enough to cause CEO Don Thompson this summer to capitulate and endorse President Obama’s call to raise the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour from $7.25. Many states have already enacted wage floors above the federal minimum.

If higher wages force higher prices on the menu, will union-backed activist groups agree to compensate McDonald’s franchisees for futures sales declines? We’re guessing not. So we’ll offer the chain some free consulting and suggest that with sales slipping lately, higher prices probably aren’t the way to draw more customers. Alternatively, McDonald’s could cut its beef costs by changing its popular burger to a fifth-of-a-pounder and hope nobody notices.

The McDonald’s earnings report on Tuesday gave a hint at how the fast-food chain really plans to respond to its wage and profit pressure—automate. As many contributors to these pages have warned, forcing businesses to pay people out of proportion to the profits they generate will provide those businesses with a greater incentive to replace employees with machines.

By the third quarter of next year, McDonald’s plans to introduce new technology in some markets “to make it easier for customers to order and pay for food digitally and to give people the ability to customize their orders,” reports the Journal. Mr. Thompson, the CEO, said Tuesday that customers “want to personalize their meals” and “to enjoy eating in a contemporary, inviting atmosphere. And they want choices in how they order, choices in what they order and how they’re served.”

That is no doubt true, but it’s also a convenient way for Mr. Thompson to justify a reduction in the chain’s global workforce. It’s also a way to send a message to franchisees about the best way to reduce their costs amid slow sales growth. In any event, consumers better get used to the idea of ordering their Big Macs on a touchscreen.

Entry-level fast-food jobs have never been intended to support an entire family. So-called quick-service restaurants provide opportunities to lots of young people with few skills and limited experience. Across all industries, about two-thirds of minimum-wage workers who stay employed get a raise in the first year.

Amid a historically slow economic recovery, 1970s labor-participation rates and stagnant middle-class incomes, we understand that people are frustrated. Harder to understand is how so many of our media brethren have been persuaded that suddenly it’s the job of America’s burger joints to provide everyone with good pay and benefits. The result of their agitation will be more jobs for machines and fewer for the least skilled workers.