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Chain restaurants are killing us: Billionaire bankers, minimum-wage toilers and the nasty truth about fast-food nation

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Let me tell you about this one stretch of Hillsborough Road in Durham, North Carolina. It’s between two freeways, just a short drive from the noble towers of Duke University, and in the space of about a mile, you will find a McDonald’s, a Cracker Barrel, a Wendy’s, a Chick-fil-A, an Arby’s, a Waffle House, a Bojangles’, a Biscuitville, a Subway, a Taco Bell, and a KFC. As you walk down this roaring thoroughfare, you’ll notice that the ground is littered with napkins and bright yellow paper cups. But then again, you aren’t really supposed to be walking along this portion of Hillsborough Road and noticing things like those cups, or that abandoned concrete pedestal for some vanished logo, or the empty Aristocrat Vodka bottle hidden behind that broken Motel 6 sign. This is a landscape meant to be viewed through a windshield and with the stereo turned up. In fact, drivers here sometimes seem bewildered by the very presence of pedestrians, which may be the reason I was almost run down twice.

But it wasn’t a car that struck me on Hillsborough Road, it was a vision: a spontaneous understanding of fast-food efficiency. I was gazing on a simple yellow structure that contained the workings of a Waffle House when it came to me—the meaning of this whole panorama of chain restaurants.

The modular construction, the application of assembly-line techniques to food service, the twin-basket fryers and bulk condiment dispensers, even the clever plastic lids on the coffee cups, with their fold-back sip tabs: these were all triumphs of human ingenuity. You had to admire them. And yet that intense, concentrated efficiency also demanded a fantastic wastefulness elsewhere—of fuel, of air-conditioning, of land, of landfill. Inside the box was a masterpiece of industrial engineering; outside the box were things and people that existed merely to be used up.

I tried to imagine the great national efforts that had made such lunatic efficiency possible. There were the agricultural subsidies and the irrigation projects and the many highway-construction programs, not to mention the mass media, without which our greatest brands could probably never have been built. Had all these mighty enterprises been undertaken simply to create the amazing but utterly typical landscape of Hillsborough Road? To ensure that certain parties might make tons of money while others made almost nothing at all?

I was in Durham on August 29 of 2013 to observe something unusual in this particular industry: a strike. What made it especially unusual is that it was happening in North Carolina, which is both hostile to unions and— as the birthplace of Hardee’s, Bojangles’, and Krispy Kreme—a kind of fast-food Athens.

The action began at a Burger King, a lonely-looking outpost holding down one corner of a bleak intersection. A handful of workers and their supporters gathered there at six in the morning, forming their line on the sidewalk even before the sun rose. After some preliminary small talk, they stirred themselves into action and began to chant: “Workers’ rights are human rights!” Mustering enthusiasm wasn’t easy at that hour, however, and the chant didn’t take. They tried another, and eventually got themselves pumped up: “We can’t survive on seven twenty-five!”

TV news crews soon showed up, as did two police cruisers. A single silhouetted customer sat by the window inside the beleaguered BK and contemplated the scene. As rush hour began, passing drivers honked to show their support.

Later that morning, the protest moved to a McDonald’s in down-town Durham, then to a Little Caesars located in a strip mall on a busy eight-lane road in Raleigh. The strikers, whose numbers had grown, stood by the curb and waved their signs at motorists while their children played in the mulch under the tiny suburban trees behind them. Drivers of semitrailer trucks blew their horns in solidarity; drivers of pickup trucks yelled insults.

The last stop of the day was a Raleigh KFC. It was nearly four in the afternoon by then, and it was plenty hot. The protesters, now numbering around 150, had rallied at a nearby Baptist church before heading over to vent their displeasure at the Colonel’s jolly empire. And this time they were accompanied by the Reverend William Barber II, leader of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter and the organizer of weekly protests against the far-right state legislature that had led, by that point, to nearly a thousand arrests.

A big man with a slight arthritic stoop, Barber worked the crowd in a resonant bass voice. Standing on the lawn in front of the KFC, he sketched out the basic moral framework of the protest—that no matter how many hours fast-food employees work, they’ll never get anywhere at minimum wage. What they wanted, Barber declared, was the right to enjoy “the fruit of their own labor,” a line he quoted from the state’s Reconstruction-era constitution. And then he lowered the boom. “I stopped by to tell you that the fruit is spoiled. The fruit is spoiled when you can work in Kentucky Fried Chicken and can’t hardly buy the chicken that’s there. The fruit is spoiled when you can work and feed other people and can’t hardly feed your own children.”

It was a day of revolt against the batter-fried god Efficiency and his eleven esoteric herbs and spices, and an air of jubilation hovered over the protesters as they made their way down Tarboro Street back to the church. Residents of the tiny houses along the route stood in their doorways and cheered as the workers passed. And the strikers themselves, back in the

church parking lot and filled with the joy of collective action, began to dance.

There have been countless news stories on the national wave of fast-food strikes, but what I saw that day in North Carolina wasn’t exactly a strike in the traditional sense of the word. In several other cities, cashiers and fry cooks walked off the job in sufficient numbers to close restaurants down. That didn’t happen in Raleigh-Durham. What I saw that day in 2013 was more protest than work stoppage, and the most visible organization at the rallies was not a union but a community-organizing outfit called Action NC. Very few people, if any, were actually skipping their shifts.

Not surprisingly, then, the workers I met seemed a little unfamiliar with the customary rules of labor agitation. One protester wore a stylish black dress and high heels—as she told me, she hadn’t anticipated how physically demanding picketing could be. The protesters made little effort to dissuade customers from entering the restaurants, and as the day got hotter, some went inside themselves to order cold drinks. Several of the people I interviewed also seemed to assume that they needn’t fear retaliation by management. These were all innocent mistakes, of course—and the kind of confusion you would expect to see in the least unionized state in the Union.

Their grievances, however, were the real thing. Willietta Dukes, dressed in dark clothes and with a crucifix on a cord around her neck, told me about her job at a local burger franchise. She is, to judge by her story, an employee who cares about the restaurant, about keeping it shipshape and getting to know regular customers. But after working for various fast-food franchises for sixteen years and raising two children on minimal pay, she’s now living in her grown son’s spare room and barely staying afloat.

By contrast, Dukes says, managers in the industry boast about the bonuses they receive, and one has even shared a favorite stress-reduction technique: every day he goes home and climbs into his hot tub. “I don’t even have a home to go to!” Dukes tells me. And though her employers are tightfisted with wages, Dukes says she received a form letter warning her about the dangers of labor unions—sent by FedEx.

Lucia Garcia, who had brought her cheerful six-year-old son to the picket line, told me about working at a suburban McDonald’s, where she has the relative good luck to be paid $7.95 per hour—seventy cents above the minimum wage. But despite this munificence, and the fact that her husband works as well, she and her family have been forced to rely on church food pantries to get by, an ironic state of affairs for someone who works in food service, and an emotionally difficult one as well. “It’s sad for me,” Garcia said, “because sometimes it embarrasses my girls.”

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.”

Indeed, these are not really restaurants at all but “food systems,” a term favored by the companies themselves. And naturally these systematizers are militantly anti-union. Schlosser tells of a “flying squad” of McDonald’s executives who roamed the country during the 1960s and 1970s, stamping out pro-labor sentiment. The National Restaurant Association, for its part, was a leading opponent of the federal “card check” legislation in 2009, which would have made it easier to form unions, and the industry also supports such private-sector propagandists as Rick Berman, a gifted translator of biz-think into the common sense of the millions.

By and large, Americans love the men who systematized their food. Our culture is awash with celebrations of the heroes who plucked pearls of efficiency from the grease traps of the nation. Think: the brave entrepreneurs who pioneered the fifteen-cent hamburger. The brave entrepreneurs who gave the fifteen-cent hamburger people a little competition. The brave entrepreneurs who brought fake Mexican food to the heartland, or who figured out a quicker way to bake a pizza or fluff a biscuit or “build” a submarine sandwich. They publish their memoirs. They are saluted by presidential candidates. They run for president themselves.

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