Fifty years ago the vast majority of US retail food services were locally owned business that were often family operations. The 1960s saw the beginning of the national fast food franchise chain pioneered by McDonalds. Today a wide array of such outlets dominates the industry. Much of their success has come from bringing the techniques of assembly line operation to food production. The food materials are all processed in centralized factories and shipped frozen to the outlets. The minimal process of final cooking and assembly is decidedly unskilled labor. That has made it feasible to run service outlets with part time workers who are paid minimum wage. There is likely only one management employee for the whole thing. Such workers can already be easily replaced.
The is now a nationwide movement underway to conduct running guerrilla strikes demanding $15/hr as a minimum wage for food workers. Rather than a total work stoppage, they are doing limited short term strikes and protest demonstrations. It is unclear if they are having success at obtaining wage increases yet or not.
Business financed think tanks are raising the threat of automation that could entirely eliminate the jobs of most of the striking workers. The Employment Policies Institute is running this full page ad in The Wall Street Journal.
Unfortunately for the workers attempting to build a union, this is a more serious threat than just the rhetoric of political spin. The corporations that put the mom and pop restaurants out of business have the deep pockets to invest in new technology. Here's an example of technology that is supposedly ready to launch a chain of automated burger joints.
San Francisco-based robotics startup, Momentum Machines aims to revolutionize the fast food industry with an automated burger machine. While preparing for the launch of their new restaurant chain, they don’t have to worry about potential chefs because they plan to start the world’s first “smart restaurant” chain where all cooking is done entirely by robots. The company proudly boasts on its product page: “Our alpha machine replaces all of the hamburger line cooks in a restaurant. It does everything employees can do except better.”We see various forms of automation coming to retail industries. Cashiers are being replaced by fully automated checkout stands. Retail has been an employment refuge because it is an industry that can't be outsourced to Asia. More and more they are selling products that have been manufactured there, but the middle vendor can't be eliminated.
This is a never ending struggle. Upward pressure on wages makes investment in new technology more cost effective. Technology that eliminates jobs adds more desperate workers to the pool of the unemployed willing to work for whatever they can get. I would be nice to have some rosy predictions for how this is all going to get resolved, but I don't have any.