SEIU: The 21st Century's Jack Cade

William Shakespeare's plays always featured some sort of comic relief to appeal to the groundlings: lower-class Britons who had to sit on the ground because they could not afford theater seats.  These members of his audience had enough common sense to laugh, for example, at Jack Cade's outrageous propositions in Henry VI.  Fast food workers will, hopefully, have enough sense to dismiss similarly the equally outrageous promises by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony to drink small beer... and when I am king, as king I will be, there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.

Even the groundlings knew what would happen if the King decreed that bakers must sell seven half-penny loaves for a penny.  Bread would quickly become available only on the black market, if it was available at all.  Henry Ford said explicitly that it is not possible to legislate prosperity, but he proved that his universal code of economic, scientific, and behavioral laws can create almost limitless wealth.  Ford's industries, and those that developed to support them, created high-wage jobs while they made the United States the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.

The leaders of the SEIU are, on the other hand, the kind of parasites against whom Ford warned very explicitly: the "spokesperson who does not work in the shop, who does not work in any shop, whose sole ambition perhaps is to never again have to work in a shop."  The SEIU's Jack Cades are now telling fast food workers that they can double their wages through unionization and, of course, payment of dues to the union's bosses.

The fight for higher fast-food wages is coming to Los Angeles. Just a few days before Labor Day, restaurant workers plan to walk off the job at big-name chains around Southern California to demand $15-an-hour pay, according to organizers.

Suppose the restaurant workers get what they want: wages of $15 an hour.  The same thing will happen that would have happened had Jack Cade become King, and decreed that bakers must sell seven half-penny loaves for a penny.  The restaurants would have to raise their prices substantially, which would reduce sales.  This would, in turn, result in restaurant closures, layoffs, or both.  The jobs might pay $15 an hour on paper, but there would be no job openings.  Then the workers whose support, and dues, SEIU wants would simply be unemployed.

This is the best that SEIU parasites can do: agitate for worse than useless legislation that will destroy businesses, and the jobs that go with them.

Let's examine a proven case study.  Suppose that masons, who can lay 125 bricks per hour, unionize to demand double their existing wages.  Economic law says you cannot pay somebody 250 bricks' worth of wages to lay 125 bricks, unless you either increase prices or else, per Ford, "put brains into the business."  If you increase your prices, customers will try to avoid buying new buildings.  When I last checked, price elasticity is a basic concept from high school economics.

Now suppose, however, that somebody like Frank Gilbreth comes along to put brains into the business.  This is an actual before-and-after movie  from more than 100 years ago.  When the bricklayers have to bend over, thus lowering and raising their entire upper body weight for each brick, they lay 125 bricks per hour.  They also probably go home with sore back muscles.  When Gilbreth's non-stooping scaffold delivers the bricks at waist level, each mason can lay 350 bricks per hour, and with far less effort.

Gilbreth proved that 64% (225 bricks not laid out of 350 possible) of the original job was waste because of its poor design.  Henry Ford proved later that 90% or even more of a job can be waste.  It was his ability to identify such waste on sight, and teach this skill to his workforce, that allowed him to raise wages more than 7 percent per year while he lowered his prices.

This, boys and girls at the SEIU, is the only way you can double your workers' wages, grow your business through price reductions, and enjoy higher profits all at the same time.  This statement is not a political platform or an ideology; it is an impartial and inarguable law of nature.  Henry Ford taught us everything we need to know about industrial and labor relations in one sentence: "It ought to be the employer's ambition, as leader, to pay better wages than any similar line of business, and it ought to be the workman's ambition to make this possible."

Nothing in this article constitutes engineering advice, but here are some ideas as to how McDonald's and other fast food restaurants can put Ford's words into practice.  If you watch a McDonald's in action, you will see that employees spend a lot of time taking orders, and then sending them to the people who prepare the food.  This is also true of other fast food restaurants. Most of these employees could probably be replaced with kiosks that accept the orders, along with cash or credit card payments.

It is also important to pay attention to waste motion and waste effort.  Fast food workers add value only when they actually assemble hamburgers, prepare drinks, and so on.  Walking back and forth to get components such as buns, burgers, and condiments does not count as a value-adding activity.

The SEIU will probably be the first to bleat, "You are destroying jobs!," which also was the concern of the machine-breaking Luddites.  History has proven, however, that automation and mechanization usually "destroy" those jobs that are the least interesting, and most labor-intensive.  It is far more cost-effective, for example, to pay one skilled construction worker a high wage to operate a backhoe or bulldozer, when it would be impossible to pay even the minimum wage to an equivalent number of workers with shovels.  Only Luddites would suggest that we abolish construction equipment in favor of pickaxes and shovels to "create more jobs," although restrictive union work rules do pretty much the same thing.  Efficiency improvements in the fast food industry will similarly require far few workers to deliver the same amount of food, but those workers can then be paid the kind of wages that the SEIU can only promise, but never deliver.

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court portrayed Merlin not as a magician with real powers, but as a fraud and a charlatan who could thrive only by deceiving ignorant and superstitious peasants (along with nobles who were proud of their illiteracy).  This describes exactly the role of the SEIU and similar demagogues, who want workers to believe they can get higher wages through collective bargaining and, of course, payment of union dues.  As stated by the Yankee, "[s]omehow, every time the magic of folderol tried conclusions with the magic of science, the magic of folderol got left."

William A. Levinson, P.E. is the coauthor of The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford's Universal Code for World-Class Success and the author of other books on manufacturing and productivity.

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