Q: If fast food workers win a pay increase of an extra $2 an hour, but this outlay consequently hastens management's investment in high tech to replace the workers--is that a pyrrhic victory? Is there a resemblance to what happened with big steel*, as new technology made many workers obsolete?
I don't think there's a comparison between steel and fast food. Many steel mills shut down entirely because foreign steel was less expensive and more reliable. Burger King and KFC can't move overseas. There will always be SOME jobs there. I believe there is so much resistance to unionization in food and retail because these are jobs that cannot be sent overseas, or even moved to less worker-friendly region of the United States. Employers would have that much less leverage over a fast-food union than they do over an autoworkers' union.
I'm not sure that keeping wages low to prevent automation is something to cheer for. There was no reason for cotton planters to develop machinery when they had sharecroppers who worked for subsistence wages, and, before that, slaves. If cheap labor discourages innovation, that's not a good thing.
*McClelland has written about how technology improvements in the steel industry has allowed it to produce more steel with far fewer workers, decimating its workforce.
Edward McClelland's most recent book Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland was inspired by seeing the Fisher Body plant across the street from his old high school torn down. Ted's writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Columbia Journalism Review, Salon, Slate, and The Nation.
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