I’ve written about low wages and poor working conditions at fast-food restaurant chains, but the fact is that a humane business owner who is a franchisee may not be in a position to treat employees humanely.
Franchisers of fast-food restaurants impose strict controls on franchisees, including the prices that they charge.
So if McDonald’s (to take a hypothetical example) says the price of a double cheeseburger is a dollar, and it costs more than a dollar to make the double cheeseburger, the “owner” of the individual McDonald’s restaurant loses money.
I put “owner” in scare quotes because a franchisee does not have the self-determination of a true owner. Under a truly independent business owner, the franchisee is not free to raise or lower prices in response to supply and demand.
The effect of unionization of fast-food workers or a higher minimum wage will be to squeeze franchisees while the effects on franchisers at the top of the economic food chain will be minor and indirect.
The answer, as Martin Longman wrote in the Washington Monthly, is for franchisees to unionize to protect their own interests. As Longman pointed out, franchisees typically pay thousands of dollars just for the right to the franchise, basic business decisions such as prices are made for them, and they often have to buy basic supplies from suppliers designated by the franchiser. They are in much the same situation as sharecroppers in the Old South in an earlier era, and have just as little ownership rights.
Everybody who is in a position to be squeezed by giant corporations — employee, franchisees, suppliers — has a right to organize collectively to equalize the bargaining power. It is not in the interest of franchisees and suppliers to be shock absorbers between these giant corporations and the workers who make their profits possible.
If franchisees organize, their organization would of course not be called a “union” . It would be called an “association” or “federation” or something like that. But the purpose would be the same.