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The advocates of worker rights have always been in a precarious position; reforms often do not align with the interests of employers. This is an enduring pattern that supporters of California Assembly Bill 275 need to consider. Most initiatives for economic equality tend to be more moralistic than practical and do not account for how firms will respond to such measures. Depending on how establishments defined in the bill as Fast-Food Restaurants (only the larger companies with 100 + stores) adjust to the requirements set by AB 275.

The law aims to establish a governor-appointed council (comprised of workers, union representatives, etc.) that reviews and amends workplace standards and wages. Even boasting a requirement where any measures would need signatures from 10,000  (consent of the governed?) fast food workers employed in California to move forward. On the surface, this new bill sounds like it will provide reforms that will improve the lives of millions of workers struggling to make ends meet on a low salary. However, the lofty aspirations of AB 275 may have the exact opposite effect.

When analyzed from the framework of Bruce Yandle’s Bootleggers & Baptists (1983) theory of coalitions, it is easy to see the fast-food workers as the proverbial Bootleggers. But such an assumption is flat-out erroneous; the hourly employees at the local Jack In The Box are the ones who will pay the price for this new labor reform.

Prima Facie, it sounds like the hourly fast-food employees of California make out like bandits. The prospect of escaping penury wages and making $22/hour. Then there is the bonus of having a voice in shaping the regulation that will impact your work life. These benefits will be short-lived; because the titans of the drive-thru will eventually respond to the monetary and transaction costs of fulfilling these new legal mandates. Few (if any) companies in any sector of business can whether a significant increase in labor costs ( there is a potential for labor costs to increase by 60 %). Depending on how large the increase in worker compensation becomes, menu prices stand to increase by 22 %. (p.7). Some may speculate that firms such as Mcdonald’s would benefit from passing along labor costs to the consumers at higher prices; there is a strong likelihood that patrons may just opt for cheaper or higher quality alternatives. There is also an increase in transaction costs because of the additional layers of complexity added to the relations between the management of franchise owners and hourly employees. AB 275 may discourage smaller regional fast-casual restaurants from expanding to avoid the onerous conditions of this new law.

Ultimately, our Bootleggers, the established fast-food eateries will gain from decreased labor costs. How? These firms will decide to automate operations and benefit from long terms savings in not having to pay salaries and benefits or cope with the loss in productivity from theft or employee absence. Only increasing the minimum wage is enough to drive many firms to reduce costs. Creating a price floor is a price control that causes disruption throughout the market. Because businesses will attempt to avoid the artificial increase in labor costs. For the workers that are lucky enough to keep their jobs, certain nonmonetary forms of compensation disappear (p.10-11); no more free coffee in the breakroom.

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7 thoughts on “Bootleggers & Baptist- LIX: California Fast-Food Bill (Did Someone Say Automation?).

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