Raising the national minimum wage is one of the most important – and most divisive – issues in the upcoming election. Fast food employees, in particular, are notoriously underpaid. Many full-time workers still depend on federal assistance to make ends meet.
The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised to a living wage! pic.twitter.com/nyXxATTQtx— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 17, 2016
Now one restaurant mogul is threatening to replace his workers with robots.
Andrew Pudzer is CEO of CKE Restaurants, which includes Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., Green Burrito, and Red Burrito. He writes opinion pieces for publications like The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Politico, appears on shows like "The O’Reilly Factor" and "Mad Money," and has worked with major conservative “job creation” initiatives, especially with the Romney campaign.
Pudzer warns that if liberals raise the minimum wage, he and other CEOs will compensate by firing workers and relying more on machines:
"This is the problem with Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, and progressives who push very hard to raise the minimum wage. Does it really help if Sally makes $3 more an hour if Suzie has no job?"
"With government driving up the cost of labor,” he claims, “it's driving down the number of jobs. You're going to see automation not just in airports and grocery stores, but in restaurants."
Fast food automation has already begun. Pudzer got the idea to mechanize Hardee’s from a visit to Eatsa, a trendy new chain where customers order quinoa bowls on computers and receive them through drawers. Employees who prepare the food stay hidden behind a wall. Eatsa claims to “democratize access to healthy food” by using automation to keep prices low.
As a businessman, Pudzer sees the appeal of robots: “They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.” Ouch. It sounds like automation could even set back hard-won employee rights.
Pudzer has said some horrible things. But before we pile on self-righteous vitriol, we would do well to understand what he’s saying.
This isn’t just some greedy, inhumane villain; he’s actually a brilliant businessman. As a lawyer with a juris doctorate, Pudzer also understands the political system more deeply than most of us can ever hope to. Cold-hearted solution aside, his analysis of the wage problem points out a fundamental conflict between capitalism and social justice.
The “race to the bottom” is the inevitable result of pure capitalism (an unregulated free market). Whoever sells at the lowest price wins the customer. Paying workers less lowers production costs, which lowers prices. The economic interests of the workers are thus fundamentally opposed to those of employers and consumers.
What economic pragmatists like Pudzer don’t admit is that business can be more than the bottom line. Jobs would only have to be eliminated if the current economic inequality is to be maintained. Another possibility would be for CEOs and consumers to change their attitudes, accepting the personal cost of a more just economy. Some economists suggest that the financial hit would only be short term; a nationwide living wage could produce greater prosperity for everyone in the long run.
Politics alone can’t fix the problem. We, as citizens and conscientious neighbors, have to put our money where our mouth is. That might mean spending a few extra bucks on a meal and or interacting with a human worker when a machine would be more efficient.
Raising the national minimum wage is still an important first step. Such legal action helps protect the powerless from inherently self-interested elites. A more just economy will require not only legislation, but also cultural change.
And, Hardee’s, replacing your workers with robots is still a jerk move.
Banner Image Credit: Flickr, Doug McCaughan