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What James Franco gets wrong about working for McDonald’s

McDonald’s, now under fire from workers, customers and its own franchisees, has found an unlikely defender: James Franco. Over at PostEverything Thursday, he waxed nostalgic about that one time when he needed some extra cash to support his acting career, nobody would give him a job but McDonald’s. The quirky characters, the annoying customers, the stolen fries — all just part of the charm of his pre-fame life.

“All I know is that when I needed McDonald’s, McDonald’s was there for me,” he writes. “When no one else was.”

Franco isn’t making much of business or economic argument, or even really responding to the demands that have been put on the company by worker campaigns demanding better treatment and higher wages. His central point, to the extent one exists, is that McDonald’s employs people, and it would be a shame if that stopped happening. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to disagree.

But his story does feed into a larger narrative that the fast-food industry has been pushing: That it’s fine if their jobs pay low wages, because they mostly go to teenagers who want pocket money or 20-somethings working their way through school. According to this line of thinking, it would be too bad if raising minimum wages caused restaurants to come up with automated technology that cut down on the number of jobs required, an outcome that would torpedo opportunities for people to support themselves while they move on to the next thing.

That narrative, while not baseless, is certainly incomplete.

Here’s what James Franco didn’t tell you: 40 percent of fast-food workers are actually over the age of 25. More than one in four are raising a child. More than half of fast-food workers’ families are enrolled in one or more social-welfare programs. There might be a few starving artists in there, but not nearly as many people trying to make it their career for an indefinite period of time — and the $8.90 per hour that employees make on average isn’t enough for most people to pay the bills.

Now it’s true that forcing fast-food restaurants to raise wages creates the risk that jobs might be lost. But it’s also true that there are only so many jobs you can eliminate — the modern fast-food industry is already highly mechanized, and it’s not clear how customers would react to ordering food from robots. And on the flip side, places like Denmark illustrate that a structure exists in which costs are slightly higher for customers, but more profit flows to employees, to the point where someone could actually make a living slinging burgers.

All of which is to say: Whether McDonald’s jobs exist for the James Francos of the future depends more on whether the company’s elaborate turnaround strategy will deliver food that people want to eat, which ultimately has more to do with business success than keeping labor costs low.

In fact, Franco may have remembered his time at the Golden Arches even more fondly if he’d been paid a little better before landing that deal with Pizza Hut, and never having to work at McDonald’s again.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper.

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