Fast Food Nation

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Fast Food Nation Chapter 3: Behind the Counter Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Schlosser opens the chapter by describing the “sedimentary” layers of Colorado Springs—its development from an old, Mountain West city, with a downtown and few chain stores, into a sprawling, suburbanized chain of housing developments, with names like “Sagewood.” Academy Boulevard, a high-trafficked suburban road in Colorado Springs, Schlosser notes, resembles the main drags of 1950s Anaheim, which became the home to fast-food franchises like McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. Schlosser argues that “this resemblance is hardly coincidental.”
Schlosser returns, here, to a description of the natural beauty one can find around Colorado Springs, and contrasts it to the “unnatural” housing developments that have cropped up in the region. Schlosser criticizes these developments for two reasons: first, because they are genuinely bad for the environment, carving up farmable land and diverting water supplies; and second, because they “pretend” to be natural, with names that evoke a natural-sounding lifestyle.
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Schlosser traces the economic changes that have taken place in Colorado Springs over the past 50 years, which some local residents, who resist these changes, call the “Californication” of the region. As California was a magnet for “disaffected middle-class Americans” looking for work in the 1930s, so, in the 1980s and 1990s, was Colorado Springs, which saw explosive growth in housing—its suburban enclaves like Sagewood—and a matched increase in the kinds of fast-food businesses that crop up along major roads and highways.
Schlosser is skilled at finding and constructing analogies, such that the book is linked by a chain of arguments from fast food products to food production to farming. Here, Schlosser sees California’s suburbanization as a process that catches on elsewhere in the country, with Colorado Springs as just another example of a region exploding with highways, cars, and housing developments.
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Colorado Springs’ economy used to be based primarily on the land—ranching in particular—but over the second half of the 20th century, the aerospace and military industries began relocating there—and this was accelerated by the establishment of the Air Force Academy just outside town after the Second World War. Paired with increased military spending was an increase in the evangelical Christian population, whose figures, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, saw in the Front Range region large, relatively affordable swaths of land, and populations primed to hear their particular brand of Christianity.
What sets Colorado Springs apart from some regions of California, however, is a particular kind of development, focusing on the US military (aviation in particular), and a set of groups that make sense as corollaries to a largely Republican, defense-minded region—namely, evangelical religious groups and Christian megachurches. This isn’t to say that the military and these megachurches always follow one another, but Schlosser is charting a set of cultural patterns in Colorado, ones that also include a heavy emphasis on deregulation and “self-reliant” conservative capitalism.
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Schlosser notes that Colorado Springs now has 21 McDonald’s (at the time of writing), and describes how certain efficiency and time-saving technologies, like computers that mark exactly how long it takes to cook fries, are being debuted in Colorado Springs, since it’s a region with high demand and a growing customer base. Schlosser sees in Colorado Springs another generation, and another market, wherein the philosophies of efficiency and expansion once espoused by Disney and Ray Kroc might be applied.
Just like southern California in the 1960s and ‘70s, Colorado Springs in the 1990s allows major fast food corporations, like McDonald’s, a robust market for the testing of new strategies of food production. This is another way that Colorado Springs resembles the California of thirty years prior—both are hotbeds for a kind of corporate capitalist culture, where speed, efficiency, and cheap labor are king.
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Schlosser turns to the story of Elisa Zamot, a sixteen-year-old worker at a McDonald’s in south Colorado Springs. Zamot gets up early—often at 5:15—and first prepares the frozen food with one other employee, then mans the cash register for about seven hours, at which point she walks home or takes the bus, to rise again the next day while it’s still dark out. Schlosser notes that Zamot’s story is not unlike a great many others in Colorado Springs and across the country. He states that “there is nothing about fast-food that requires young workers,” but that, instead, employers like young employees because they can be paid less than older ones, and because they are “easier to control.”
Schlosser, as is characteristic for him, turns from a broad-based depiction of an entire region to a story of one person, whose life is affected by the fast food industry in that region. Zamot could be any high-school student—she works hard, and she doesn’t really mind her job at McDonald’s, despite having to wake up early on the weekends. But Schlosser makes plain that Zamot labors, quite hard, for a company that cares little for her welfare, that pays her almost nothing—and that would replace her immediately if for some reason Zamot could no longer work.
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Schlosser introduces the industrial-efficiency concept of “throughput,” “the speed and volume of a factory’s flow,” which is far more important in the fast-food industry than “the number of workers a business employs, or the value of its machinery.” In fast food, efficiency is everything, and a better throughput situation maximizes profit for the corporation—if not necessarily making the working conditions pleasant for the employees. Indeed, Schlosser argues, throughput as a defining concept has made working in fast food almost a robotic exercise—“everything’s add water,” says one employee at Taco Bell—“Just add hot water.”
“Throughput,” like suburbanization, is one of the book’s central principles. Schlosser believes that an emphasis on workflow processes—on exactly how much product can be moved through a production line in a given time—has caused enormous changes in the way Americans eat. These changes affect consumers, food producers (like McDonald’s), and the farmers who must grow the food quickly enough to supply the high “throughput” demands of agribusinesses and fast-food giants.
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The vast majority of fast food workers are young men and women, often high-school aged, and recent immigrants to the United States—populations that are more likely to be maltreated by employers, especially since many fast-food employees don’t know their rights, or are too scared and intimidated to ask for what they’re guaranteed. Many fast food workers work overtime but are not compensated for it, and others are asked to stay late without being paid.
Here, Schlosser notes a common tactic in the fast-food (and, later, meatpacking) industries. High throughput demands mean that workers do very little at each stage of the production process, and they do it repetitively. This means that working the job is easy—and that, therefore, nearly anyone could do the job. Workers therefore have little value to the corporation, and can be hired and fired more or less at will and be paid very little.
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Employers and franchisers, however, have reported vastly increased profits over the past twenty or thirty years, primarily as a result of increased automation and “throughput” within the industry—but “real wages” of employees (adjusted for inflation) have dropped in the fast-food industry for nearly 30 years. Many employers, rather than pay employees more for the work they do, are encouraged by fast-food corporations to “stroke” their employees—or to laud them with empty praise, which does not result in higher earnings or a more stable job.
To keep employees happy without allowing unions, collective bargaining, increased wages, or better benefits packages, employers are encouraged by the fast-food conglomerates to give their employees fast and free encouragement. It’s an ingenious system, as this encouragement costs nothing for the company—and it can make at least some workers happy, for a time.
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McDonald’s is also notorious for its union-busting policies on the corporate level. Schlosser notes that not a single current employee of a McDonald’s restaurant, as of the book’s writing, is in a union; when McDonald’s management in Oak Park learns of potential unionization, as happened in Mason City, Iowa, in the 1970s, or outside Montreal in the 1990s, McDonald’s uses a variety of anti-labor practices to quash the union sentiment—including lie detector tests for employees (asking if unionization has been discussed) or even the closing of entire potentially unionizing stores, as in the case of the restaurant outside Montreal. McDonald’s opposes unions zealously, because non-unionized employees cannot argue as effectively for increased wages, better schedules, or more stable jobs.
Unions, indeed, exist primarily to fight the kinds of labor practices in which McDonald’s and other fast food companies regularly engage. For example, unions combat the relatively low bargaining power of individuals by encouraging those individuals to band together—thus the strike is a powerful tool for unions, since it offers a counterweight to relatively untested corporate power. If a corporation wants to cut wages, the employees can all strike together—and the company cannot, for a time, make money. Thus unions offer a check to corporate authority. Without a union, this check does not exist.
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Schlosser notes that Elisa Zamot, who works at the McDonald’s in Colorado Springs, works weekends and two evenings a week, and, like many high school students at fast-food restaurants across the country, she does so to earn spending money to help buy and maintain a car—to help her family somewhat with expenses—and because the work, though “monotonous,” provides a certain autonomy for young high-schoolers who are otherwise closely observed in classes or by their parents. Thus Schlosser does not make every fast-food job seem like purgatory; rather, he notes that the enjoyability of a job in the fast-food industry depends largely on the disposition of the manager, who might be kind or strict, depending on the location.
Schlosser does his best to argue the other side of the story, however: that fast food jobs are, for many, a right of passage into adulthood, a job for part-time in high school, and one that can provide a small income stream to supplement certain high school expenses. This is, of course, the truth for many; but it’s not the truth for all. And, increasingly, fast-food jobs are the primary source of income for parents and families—which means that the low wages, long hours, and absence of overtime have a real impact on the US workforce.
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But Schlosser does describe the safety conditions in many fast-food restaurants as sub-par, especially when it comes to the frequency with which these restaurants are robbed, often by former employees with a grudge against their managers. Schlosser cites incidents from across the country, wherein former fast-food workers use information about the layout of the store, and the hours in which it might be most vulnerable, to steal cash from a day’s or week’s business.
In addition to these low wages, the safety record at places like McDonald’s is deplorable. Schlosser’s critique of the fast-food industry is perhaps never stronger than here, when he wonders aloud what other industry is so beset by robberies from former employees. Indeed, this kind of violence and criminality is directly connected, in Schlosser’s opinion, by the harsh employment practices of the fast-food industry itself.
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Schlosser also describes the disconnect between the boring, unglamorous, often physically demanding work that recent immigrants and high-school students perform in fast-food restaurants, with the Annual Multi-Unit Foodserver Operators Conference, a gathering for managers and franchise owners in fast-food, in which anti-labor and anti-union practices are discussed. The corporate climate at these outings is one of positivity, a kind of relentless cheerfulness, yet speakers tend to undercut discussion of teamwork and the “value of people” as fast-food workers with anti-union diatribes, and arguments against the raising of the minimum wage, which, as one executive puts it, “chills” him. Schlosser implies strongly that he finds the executives’ discussion of teamwork hypocritical at best.
Schlosser finds these sorts of trade gatherings fascinating, perhaps as ways of seeing, in very public form, how fast-food executives view their jobs and their relationships to their employees. Schlosser sets the “cheerfulness” of the surroundings in contrast to some of the grinding difficulties and frustrations of actually working behind the counter at a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell. The executives of these companies seem to acknowledge their employees only collectively and in the abstract—not as individuals, as people who might find their jobs harsh, low-paying, and perhaps even unsafe.
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