Doug Smith: Dear Stephanie – Uh, That Thing About McDonald’s Workers That’s Missing

By Douglas K. Smith, author of On Value and Values: Thinking Differently About We In An Age Of Me

This past week, a frustrated Stephanie Strom (who covers business for The New York Times) took to Twitter to upbraid readers for hitting the send button too quickly:

So, before you email her about what’s missing, please do read her ENTIRE story, “McDonald’s Seeks Its Fast Food Soul”:

As you make your way through, you’ll learn that Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s new CEO, faces a daunting set of challenges if he and McDonald’s are going to reverse serious decline. According to Stephanie’s, McDonald’s ‘soul’ lies in restoring ‘fast’ to ‘food’ – and doing so above some minimum threshold of quality of food. As many McDonald’s critics point out, ‘fast’ is inconsistent with the operational complexity arising from too much menu variation – and, yet, the innovation needed to respond to burgeoning and differentiated competition is too often the handmaiden of variation. On top of that trap, minimum threshold of quality means McDonald’s must avoid using ingredients that make customers sick and unhealthy. Which is why, in another recent tweet, Stephanie exclaimed:

These are all tough business problems – well covered by Stephanie.

But, hey Stephanie, what about the workers?

Here’s just a partial list of what any one, including journalists, following McDonald’s knows about how McDonald’s treatment of workers:

• McDonald’s workers do not earn a living wage

• McDonald’s encourages workers to sign up for food stamps – meaning taxpayers subsidize the low wages at McDonald’s

• McDonald’s discriminates against workers and threatens them illegally (e.g. that health care coverage will be taken away)

• McDonald’s commits wage theft

• McDonald’s denies workers paid sick days

• McDonald’s employees are a lot older – and more dependent on wages and benefits – that the happy high schoolers flipping burgers image suggests

• McDonald’s does every thing possible to prevent workers from unionizing

• McDonald’s hides behind corporate laws to avoid responsibility for what it says it cannot control among abusive franchisees

Stepanie: All of that is missing. And I read your ENTIRE piece.

OOOPS! Actually, there is a hint – let’s call a McNugget – about workers in Stephanie’s article. In the 41st paragraph of Stephanie’s 44 paragraph piece, we find this quote from new CEO Easterbrook: “Change the conversation about McDonald’s: Counterattack brand disparagers with continuous positive news on food quality and employment image.”

There was the lede Stephanie not only buried but ignored. Having written an entire article about what it might take for McDonald’s to generate ‘continuous positive news on food quality’ – and, note, that’s on actual food quality, not just the image of food quality – the article ignored Mr. Easterbrook’s mandate about ‘news on … employment image’. It failed to cover the link between employment conditions and McDonald’s soul. And it failed to take Mr. Easterbrook to task for worrying more about ‘employment image’ than ‘employment reality’. That’s a lot to miss.

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  1. Sam Kanu

    At this point it is fairly clear that the corporate media are not inept or clueless – they are agents of the corporate regime of mass exploitation and mind control.

  2. Clive

    Any PR / messaging campaign which is found to be (or actually, unbelievably, takes pride in) saying that it will be trotting out “positive news stories” or similar is adding to the brand debasement, not fixing it.

  3. Llewelyn Moss

    I love the pic in that article of Ronald the clown staring into the mirror envisioning his youthful self. But if it were real, Ronald would be 500 pounds from a steady diet of lard fried cow entrails and potatoes. And yeah, treatment of workers is abysmal and soulless.

  4. Katniss Everdeen

    OK, so how do I put this delicately? There’s really no way.

    McD’s does not pay a “living” wage and does not permit sick days. So, presumably, McD’s workers are fixing FOOD (so-called) with dripping noses and sweaty fevers.

    Maybe removing the “antibiotics” from their chicken is not in the best, long-term interest of their customers OR their bottom line.

    As a matter of fact, maybe finding ways to get “antibiotics” INTO all their products would be the better idea.

  5. AWB

    Why pick on McDonalds? Didn’t Walmart lead the charge into the 21st century?

    Maybe we should start importing chinese workers to use as slave labor, for all the good reporting on reporters is doing.

    When the Occupy movement and the Tea Party recognize they have a common enemy in entrenched interests, and get serious about it, then maybe they will be taken seriously. Until then, the divide and conquer strategy of the elite is working to perfection.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Huh? So we should not mention McDonald’s? What kind of logic is that? Everyone but the very biggest should get a free pass? You are actually enabling the “divide and conquer” strategy you claim to deride by blowing off these abuses as not worthy of notices, and not worthy of calling out reporters on it. In case you managed to miss it, the media shapes popular opinion on what is and isn’t acceptable conduct.

      And McDonald’s is concerned about the bad PR. A lot of people avoid shopping at WalMart due to the way it treats workers. Fast food places are even more vulnerable because unlike WalMart, which often has a monopoly on cheap prices in communities, particularly the rural ones that WalMart originally targets. By contrast, in most places in the US, consumers have a choice among fast food restaurants.

    2. NOTaREALmerican

      Occupy and the Tea Party have nothing in common other than the desire for more authoritarian government. They do agree that the other side’s version of authoritarian government is flawed tho.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Huh? Occupy has a large anarchist wing. That cohort is at odds with groups like Occupy the SEC that wants to design and implement reforms. And I seem to dimly recall that Occupy had lots of protests and encampments, and a process for decision-making that was so democratic (“stack”) that made it almost dysfunctional. Please tell me how that is authoritarian. Hint: you don’t get to have your own pet definitions of words.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            There are groups still operating, like Occupy the SEC, Alternative Banking, I believe Strike Debt, Occupy Oakland, and various local Occupy Homes groups.

            1. zapster

              I recently saw a community action video that said they were bringing in Occupy trainers to teach them how to wage non-violent resistance, as well. #Blacklivesmatter also did that. I think Occupy is bigger than anyone realizes, they’re just keeping a prudently low profile.

    3. flora

      The bill of particulars against McD’s treatment of its workers does sound like WalMart. Nice to know both companies are suffering sales losses and that their competitors are doing relatively better.

    4. Pepsi

      Italy has little colonies of Chinese workers toiling in factories and then affixing “MADE IN ITALY” tags. Free trade or borders are unethical or something

  6. Ulysses

    Corporate apologists, in academia and the MSM, will very rarely acknowledge the nascent fight for a living wage and more dignified conditions of work here in the U.S. Indeed they are actively trying to suppress information leaking out, about the exciting new alliances now forming– between adjunct faculty and low-wage restaurant and retail workers.

    Solidarity is our strongest resource in the struggle against kleptocracy!!

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      If you look at movies (particularly family “western” sitcoms of the 50’s), you notice a big difference in the way Then: They incorporate fair treatment of workers in their morality cliches and opinions dispersed throughout, but particularly in the paternalistic “summation” at the end.

      And Now: The characters tend to screw each other in more or less friendly ways but with the underlying theme of individual survival and with implicit approbation going to the clever ones who come out on top – that’s the new norm.

      Since it’s invention, it has been virtually impossible to find a program that comes out of the TV box that isn’t propaganda in one way or another, but the message has shifted quite a lot.

  7. Paul

    [1] It’s become unaffordable
    [2] It’s unhealthy
    [3] At the current price points…just about everything else (Panera, Chipotle, pizza, Mike’s Subs, Smash Burger, etc etc) become reasonable alternatives if you want to eat decent “fast food”

    McDonald’s is not really that different than cigarette manufacturers…they’re a “death merchant” pure and simple

    Foreigners have figured it out and are staying away in droves

    Same goes for Coke and Pepsi

  8. Rosario

    Remember surplus-labor versus necessary labor? Well, $15 dollars an hour in most states can not even cover necessary labor (unless a place to live, health insurance, and utilities are considered luxuries or dividends) so all large service industries are receiving pure surplus labor. $10 an hour, the “realistic” goal in most cities including my own, is a pittance. A periodical devoted to Capitalist truisms will never explicitly state that workers are merely machinery, nothing more. Actually, they are more disposable than machinery. What is their asset value if they require little to any investment at $7.25 an hour? Note that a point-of-purchase machine at your average McDonalds is around $799. At current minimum wage levels that is about 110 hours of labor or 2 3/4 weeks labor with 40 hour work weeks (often not given to service industry workers to avoid benefits obligations). Therefore the POP machine pays for itself many times over in its entire operating life and will be valued far more than any set of hands that uses it. It is an entirely inhuman system. This is an ethical and moral problem not an economic one.

  9. Michael Carano

    40 years ago newspapers had a labor column, and the writers knew labor history and labor struggle. They were union themselves. Now 90% of media is controlled by 6 corporate entities, labor has been decimated, and class struggle is never mentioned. Worker perspective is drowned in financial worship of profit, and surplus labor is funneled to the few. Is tipping point near? The Boleshivics were surprised by events in 1917. We could use a little bit of surprise now.

    1. LAS

      Too true. Change in media ownership over the years has had a terrible impact on public dialogue.

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