Dissolve the McDonald's Workforce and Elect a New One

By Mark Krikorian on September 5, 2011
The cover story in Sunday's Washington Post magazine

was a profile of a McDonald's store just south of the House office buildings in Washington, one of the busiest in the whole metro area, focusing on the manager, Raul Reyes, and his rise from a teenager selling coconuts on buses in Guatemala to running a busy and successful fast-food restaurant. The guy seems like a real go-getter who delights in his job, though is it really possible that the manager of a $5.2 million business makes only $39,000 a year? It seems like there'd have to be bonuses and incentives and the like that the reporter was too incurious to ask about.

But in a profile of this particular dot on the fast-food map you have to read carefully to discern what happened when the store was purchased in 2003 by Cuban-born Carlos Mateos — namely, that the black Americans were fired and replaced with Hispanic immigrant workers, virtually all of them originally illegal aliens now claiming to have temporary status:

When he [Reyes] took over I Street and its staff in 2004, he worked three months without a day off. He shored up the inventory practices; no one was keeping records on, for instance, how many hamburgers were dropped on the floor. He fired 40 of the restaurant's 72 workers. "People didn't like me, but they were giving away free food," he said. "They were taking money from the cash register like they were ATM machines." He began tapping the Latino grapevine for employees. The neighborhood gentrified. Nearby low-income housing was demolished. Nationals Park opened in 2008, and Reyes rose meteorically.

Now, "Eighty percent of Reyes's workers are from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador" — and you can bet most of the rest are from Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, etc. because only one non-Hispanic worker is mentioned or pictured in the article (though another is pictured in the online slide show). Reyes's own immigration situation is variously described as "temporary resident status" (in the print version of the story) or "categorized technically as a legalized alien" in the web version; again, the reporter's lack of curiosity is notable, since Guatemalans have never been eligible for Temporary Protected Status.

To give the story Labor Day Meaning, the reporter quotes a couple of lefty activists, one of whom complains: "But it [McDonald's] pays the lowest wages possible. It starts people at minimum wage and then keeps them at a low wage for as long as they can get away with it." And another complains that "in today's economy, restaurants like McDonald's can get away with it because workers are fighting over the last scraps of employment." Of course, you know these whiners would be the first to oppose enforcing immigration law to tighten the labor market for low-skilled workers, thus allowing wages at the bottom to increase organically, through normal market mechanisms, instead of through the government fiat they’d prefer.

Finally, I know some readers will draw immigration-policy lessons from Reyes's having to fire the American workers who were "giving away free food" and "taking money from the cash register" — namely, that we need the infusion of values that mass immigration brings because our own people (and let's face it, it's our black people everyone's thinking of when they say this) are irredeemably indolent and depraved. But I ask: whatever human-capital problems exist among our own people — and the problems are real — how does importing foreigners actually fix anything? This is the neutron bomb approach to immigration: keep the McDonald's building standing, but get rid of all the people that worked in it. You can hardly blame Reyes, who has to do anything within the law to make the business work, but you can blame Congress and successive administrations for making it possible to "tap the Latino grapevine" instead of finding ways to recruit, train, and retain American workers. And what about the children of these immigrant workers? They're going to exhibit (already are) the same human-capital problems we see among many of our own young people (illegitimacy, for instance, jumps from 40 percent among Hispanic immigrants to 50 percent among their native-born children and grandchildren). Are we going to import another cohort of immigrants to replace them? How is this sustainable?