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Column: How Leadership By McDonald’s Could Rescue the U.S. Economy

The flurry of one-day strikes by low-earning fast-food workers has created an opportunity to transform the national debate about wages — and if a fast-food chief executive doesn’t have the imagination to seize it, President Barack Obama should when he resumes his middle-class road show.

Front-line workers at McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC have staged walkouts recently in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Flint, Mich. These protests, funded in part by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have garnered headlines and given voice to hardworking Americans who can’t make ends meet on $9 or $10 an hour, let alone on the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

The corporate response to such protests follows a standard playbook. Offer soothing nostrums about the organization’s commitment to employees. Add facts about the higher-earning career path (that a small minority of) front-line workers have built. Let the trade association explain that fast-food chains have thin profit margins and argue that wage increases could lead to reduced hiring.

In short: Stand firm, lay low and hope things blow over.

That strategy may once have worked, but today’s strikes take place against the backdrop of widespread anxiety in an era in which global competition and rapid technological changes have put the middle class at risk. Four years into a “recovery,” 20 million Americans who want full-time work can’t find it.

Half of all jobs in the United States pay less than $35,000 a year. Wages have been stagnant for decades, while a handful of top earners have collected nearly all the recent gains in national income.

Meanwhile, according to the SEIU, the typical hamburger flipper is no longer the teenager of popular imagination but a struggling adult of 28. Many have lost better-paying jobs and are scrambling for whatever they can get.

The paradox is that for both fast-food employers and their critics, these trends present an opportunity. If global economic integration is putting downward pressure on the wages of jobs that can be performed elsewhere, the one sector immune to these pressures is in-person service work. That means jobs in areas such as home health care, retail sales, teaching, personal grooming and fast food.

In-person service work accounts for roughly 30 million jobs in the United States. The sector is experiencing faster job growth than the economy overall, but wages are relatively low and lag behind wage growth in the broader economy. If this non-offshorable segment of American work could be a more certain path to the middle class, it would offer an important measure of security and optimism in a global economy that poses threats to many Americans. Figuring out a feasible way to do this ought to be a national priority.

Imagine if the CEO of McDonald’s (or another chain) announced the following:

“We realize we’re in a new era in which in-person service-sector work needs to be an important piece of any effort to save the middle class. But we’re not sure how best to balance the interests of workers, consumers and shareholders — many of whom are pension funds on which workers depend — as we try to get there. After all, fast-food firms have pretax profit margins of just 3 percent to 5 percent.

“So we’re proposing a test. Starting on Jan. 1, our chain will raise the minimum pay in our stores in New York, Topeka and Denver to $12 an hour plus health care. We’ll also raise prices in ways that keep our profit margins similar to what they are today. I call on our competitors to make the same wage commitment in these three cities. We’ve asked the Rand Corp., aided by an advisory board of leaders from labor, business and the nonprofit sector, to study these changes for the next five years to determine their distributional impact.

“We need this study because we need to think through who bears the burden of turning fast-food jobs into higher-paying jobs. How much of the adjustment should be borne by consumers via higher prices? How much by shareholders in terms of reduced returns? Is there a role for taxpayers to do more via an expanded earned-income tax credit? Will this higher wage unintentionally hurt less-skilled Americans because chains will end up hiring only workers who, in economic terms, are ‘worth’ $12 or more? Will it lead to faster automation that reduces the number of jobs?

“We’re committed to sharing our findings every step of the way. We believe we can be a laboratory for democracy and help inform a national conversation about how to make a modern economy work for every American.”

This brand of “Big Mac” statesmanship would require businesses to accept a duty to help solve broader social challenges. It also would require labor to give up its rhetoric slamming the chains’ “billions in profits” when those sums go largely to shareholders that benefit workers, such as pension fund shareholders, and when actual profit margins in the sector (the relevant metric) are small.

I know executives are reluctant to wade into such controversies. But business leaders who take this approach would be hailed as patriotic visionaries (in ways that would be good for business).

If none can be found, Obama should use the fast-food strikes as a teachable moment, bring all parties to the table and call for exactly this kind of in-person service-sector wage test under the aegis of the White House.

Matt Miller writes a weekly online column for The Washington Post.