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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 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 downtown 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 have led 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 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 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.

And then there is the army of slightly less heroic entrepreneurs known as franchisees, people who harness their ambition to a brand and a food system developed by someone else. They may not be Wilber Hardee or Harland Sanders, but they are still risk-taking individualists, tirelessly pushing some cupcake concept or dedicating their lives to the advancement of Hawaiian-style smoothies. We love them too. They are our “neighbors,” as an angry commentator on Fox News put it during a segment on the fast-food strike; they are people, said another, who “worked their rear ends off all their life, put up their own risk capital.”

These myths are powerful stuff. They were reiterated by Mitt Romney just last year, when he extolled the “entrepreneurial spirit” of Jim Liautaud, the founder of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches. People like Liautaud “don’t look to governments,” the candidate insisted, in a campaign speech in suburban Chicago. “They instead look to themselves and say: What can I do to make myself better? What things can I do to enhance the prospects for myself and my family?”

[*] Congress has not voted to raise the minimum wage since 2007. And although Obama called for an increase in 2008 and again earlier this year, he has done little or nothing since he took office to persuade Congress to act on the matter.

But while these practitioners of self-improvement through food systems may not “look to governments,” government sure does look out for them. I refer not only to roads and sewers and small-business loans but also to something much more direct. As I discovered in North Carolina, many if not most fast-food workers receive food stamps or some other form of government assistance. When they say, “We can’t survive on seven twenty-five!” they mean it quite literally — they can’t survive on the minimum wage, and neither can you, if you are trying to “enhance the prospects” of your family by feeding them.[*] So government steps in and graciously makes up the difference with our tax dollars, thereby excusing management from paying workers enough to keep them and their families, you know, alive.

“It’s an honest living,” Willietta Dukes told me the day of the action in North Carolina, by way of explaining why she should be paid more. “I’m a hard worker.”

These were direct statements, made without guile. But despite the legend of the scrappy fast-food entrepreneur, I wonder how many chain-store bosses can truthfully say they make an “honest living.” The managers at the restaurants in Raleigh-Durham declined to talk to me, so it’s difficult to form any kind of judgment about them as individuals. The fast-food companies themselves, however, are well-known entities. Vast corporations making vast profits, they deal in often unhealthy food and pay their leading executives princely sums. And increasingly, they are the property of the same hard-working bankers who brought you the economic slump that never ends.

Consider Burger King, which (let the shameful record show) I once preferred to certain other ubiquitous burger joints. Today the chain is little more than a shuttlecock for private equity. Acquired in 1997 by Diageo, the liquor multinational, it was sold in 2002 to a consortium of financial institutions — including, of course, Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital — which took the company public in 2006. It was next acquired by the Brazilian-backed investment firm 3G Capital, then merged with yet another private-equity outfit, only to be taken public again last year. Along the way, this pointless enterprise duly fumbled its position as the Number Two American burger chain. A long and painful fight with employees can only do it good.

Similar stories are everywhere you care to look. Bojangles’, the fried-chicken chain, used to be owned by Falfurrias Capital Partners, which eventually off-loaded it to a private-equity firm called Advent International. Sun Capital Partners owns Friendly’s, Captain D’s, Johnny Rockets, and Boston Market. Fog Cutter Capital Group owns Fatburger. Consumer Capital Partners owns Smashburger. And then there is Roark Capital — yes, named after Ayn Rand’s individualist architect — which owns Arby’s, Cinnabon, Carvel, Moe’s Southwest Grill, and (perhaps tellingly) a trash-collection company called Waste Pro.

Even the franchisees, the moms and pops who run your beloved local chain restaurant, aren’t that mom-and-poppy anymore. Here too the Wall Street folks have seen a good thing — a reliable source of revenue made possible by rock-bottom wages. The largest Burger King franchisee, for example, is a publicly traded company in Syracuse, New York, that owns 566 local restaurants; its CEO took home $1.9 million last year, counting stock options. Another big BK operator is Strategic Restaurants, which is owned by Cerberus Capital. The largest tranche of Pizza Hut franchises is owned by something called Olympus Growth Fund V, which bought it in 2011 from Merrill Lynch Global Private Equity. And let us not overlook the doughty folks at Valor Equity, which owns a string of Little Caesars and Dunkin’ Donuts locations through its Utah subsidiary, Sizzling Platter.

At both the corporate and the franchise level, industry officials are keeping their mouths shut about the strike, and for obvious reasons. Acknowledging worker discontent is a no-win situation for enterprises that have invested so much in depicting themselves as enclaves of family-friendly happiness. I mean, nothing deflates a carefully constructed brand image like an angry worker standing out front screaming about not being able to vaccinate her six-month-old on said brand’s lousy pay.

However, the industry’s D.C. attack dog, Rick Berman, felt no such compunction, and commenced snarling immediately. On the day of the strike back in August, his Employment Policies Institute ran a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal featuring a big photo of a Japanese kitchen robot. The fast-food protests “aren’t a battle against management,” the ad proclaimed, but a “battle against technology.” Should workers push too hard for super-size wages, shiny automatons might well be deployed in restaurants across the country, making you-know-who totally redundant.

The ad’s implication was that companies employ humans as an act of charity. If those ingrate humans mouth off too much, those noble companies will just go ahead and take the bottom-line steps they’ve magnanimously refrained from taking until now. “Hard work” and an “honest living” actually mean nothing in this world; capital means everything. Look on my technology, ye powerless, and despair!

I thought about that nightmare of automation for quite a while after Berman’s ad ran. It has a grain of truth to it, of course. Journalists have been replaced with bloggers and crowdsourcing. Factory hands have been replaced with robots. University professors are being replaced with adjuncts and MOOCs. What else might the god Efficiency choose to de-skill?

Here’s a suggestion: the ideological carnival barkers in D.C. As I watched the creaking libertarian apparatus go into action, sending its suit-and-tie spokesmen before the cameras to denounce unions and order fast-food workers to shut up, I wondered how long capital would tolerate its old-fashioned existence. In many cases, these people haven’t had an original thought in years. Their main job is to appear concerned on Fox News and collect a six-figure sinecure at some industry-subsidized think tank. To say that they “work hard” for an “honest living” is to bend meaning to the point where its fragile chicken bones snap beneath its rubbery flesh. In a sane world, they are the ones who would be most profitably replaced, their space in the CNBC octobox taken by Hatsune Miku–style projections, attractive Republican holograms whose free-market patter could be easily cued up by a backoffice worker in Bangalore.

Boddie-Noell Enterprises is one of the great fast-food success stories in North Carolina. It was among the first to open a franchise of Hardee’s, a restaurant selling cheap hamburgers after the McDonald’s model, and over the years Boddie-Noell grew to become the biggest Hardee’s franchisee of them all. The company has not been purchased by some faceless private-equity firm, and it is not the sort of outfit that would ever run advertisements threatening to replace its workers with robots.

On the contrary, it is a family-owned business whose slogan is “We Believe in People.” Boddie-Noell feels such concern for its people that the company claims to have a phalanx of “Corporate Chaplains” on call, ready to “offer care to employees with personal and professional life issues.” (I was told that there were several disgruntled Boddie-Noell employees on the picket line, but there was no corporate ministry in evidence.)

Boddie-Noell Enterprises also owns a plantation. In saying this, I am not making a snarky comment about the conditions of fast-food employment. I mean a real plantation outside the town of Nashville, North Carolina, named Rose Hill. Its main house was completed in the 1790s by the ancestors of the Boddie family, and its ups and downs over the decades roughly parallel the vicissitudes of American capitalism itself.

The Boddies lost Rose Hill in the depths of the Depression, that dreadful era for the One Percent, but were able to buy it back in 1979, as their archipelago of cheap hamburger stands grew. Yes, their antebellum paradise was regained through the miraculous intercession of fast-food efficiency, and now the family has converted Rose Hill into a conference center and a favorite venue for elegant plantation-style weddings.

The day after the strike, I drove out to Rose Hill. It was indeed impressive. I approached the plantation by an allée of crêpe-myrtle trees in full flower, and passed through an imposing brick-and-iron gateway bearing the Boddie coat of arms (which does not feature a hamburger couchant on a field of honey-mustard dipping sauce). I drove on, was waved at by a man mowing a lawn, and finally reached the main building, where I had the beautifully landscaped parking area all to myself.

The manor house certainly looked authentic — white and stately, the ceiling of the grandiose, four-columned front porch painted exactly the right shade of blue. I rang the doorbell: nothing. I gazed out over the attractive swimming pool: nobody. With the exception of the man on the mower, Rose Hill seemed completely depopulated.

I have no doubt that this place swarms with people when conferences are in session or weddings in progress. But seeing it empty in this way triggered another epiphany, a vision of a world in which workers and their troubles had completely disappeared. Yes, they will persist as smiling faces in company newsletters. Yet the day will come when technology and ideology make them absolutely interchangeable, each bearing a silver tray loaded with deep-fried hors d’oeuvres: a support staff for the entrepreneurial schemes and romantic fantasies of the ones who can still afford individuality.


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