“A Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) organizer said the union is workers coming together to change things that they couldn’t change by themselves. We started saying that and that’s what really changed things.” Shen Batmaz, a McDonald’s employee and trade union member, said this over a year ago as a few workers tried to mobilize against the exploitative conditions in outlets owned by the fast food giant’s franchisees.
Fast forward to October 4, when after months of organizing, McDonald’s workers, joined by employees from TGI Fridays, Wetherspoon, UberEats and Deliveroo, staged the first-of-its-kind joint action in the UK. The action, which is popularly referred to as the McStrike, was a testament to the strength, and the confidence, acquired by young workers to unite and fight for their rights that began with them realizing the power of unions.
The extent of this action is all the more noteworthy as it began with just a few workers in two McDonald’s outlets in London in September 2017. They were inspired by and part of a global movement that started in the United States in 2012, with fast food outlet employees declaring they would no longer toil for poverty wages, and demanding working conditions that would enable them to lead decent lives.
Since the fight began, there have been a few small successes now and then, but the primary demands remain the same: a minimum wage of £10 per hour, recognition of unions, and an end to the system of ‘zero hour’ contracts.
Rallies were held in different parts of the United Kingdom, with solidarity action also held in the United States and other parts of the world as part of the #FastFoodGlobal campaign. Restaurant employees picketed outside their workplaces, urging people to boycott eating there for the day of the protest, and to not order food using UberEats.
The life of a fast food employee
“Poverty wasn’t just a word to me – I was living it. I knew that if the manager decided to take shifts away from me I would end up homeless. And all the workers at my store were struggling just the same,” Lauren McCourt wrote for the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) blog, explaining how she became involved in the union action.
Adriana Alvarez, an employee of McDonald’s for the last eight years, talked about how she could not answer her son’s questions on why they had to live in poverty despite her working all the time. “I want to be able to take care of my son without worrying about losing a day of wages,” she said.
Her words reflect the experiences of thousands of such workers across the UK, and possibly millions across the world. For instance, the zero hour contracts, a key issue for the workers, lead to completely uncertain schedules, and no guaranteed wages. Employees constantly live with the fear that despite having a job, they might not be able to clock in enough hours to meet their basic expenses. Workers barely get any sick days and often end up coming in even during illnesses, because of both the uncertainty of work, and the fear of losing their job if they take more than the allowed number of leaves.
The work itself can be extremely stressful as restaurants are often understaffed. Employees work long shifts – often as long as 12 hours – with hardly any breaks. At Wetherspoon, an employee gets a short 15-minute break for a five-six hour shift, a 30-minute break while working for six-seven hours, and a 45-minute break for an eight-eleven hour-long shift.
At Uber, a large, spontaneous protest broke out towards the end of September this year when the company arbitrarily cut by 40% the minimum payment a driver gets for making a delivery. It is this lasting anger which led to UberEats riders joining the McStrike in solidarity. They thus sent across the message that the plight of the working class is common across sectors, regardless of which multinational giant employed them.
“As it stands, cyclists, drivers, and scooter riders across the UK are delivering food with no guarantee of hitting at least national minimum wage. We can earn as low as £2.80 per delivery, with no guarantee of making enough deliveries in an hour to earn a decent living. … In order to earn enough to pay our basic bills, we are encouraged to work faster than is safe, and often in extreme weather conditions, and on very busy roads. We do this without sick pay, without injury pay, and without insurance policies that are fit for purpose,” a statement by the drivers said on the IWW website.
Collective action and strength in numbers
At a time when union membership is at record low across the globe, and giants such as McDonald’s continue their decades-long endeavour to come down hard on any collective bargaining, it is heartening to see young workers realize the power of unions, and succeed in unionizing.
“I knew workers had never won better living standards and better conditions and power by relying on the generosity of any government or these companies. But until I actually saw it in practice, I didn’t realize it was something we could actually do,” said Chris Hepple, a Wetherspoon employee.
For too long, the employees said, they had felt powerless and believed they could not do anything against such corporate giants. A majority of students also felt that pursuing higher education meant incurring heavy debts, which you would have to work hard to pay off, while living a life of subsistence in cramped accommodations. Since work at fast food chains is considered to be unskilled labor, many, including the workers themselves, also internalized the notion that employees did not deserve more than subsistence wages. The strategy employed by union organizers to counter this argument was to point out the kind of profits the companies earned, and the salaries paid to the CEOs and higher management.
“We asked people how much they thought the CEO of McDonald’s earns per hour, some people said £20 to £30. It’s actually £8,000 — and the workers were outraged about it,” Shen said. “Then we asked, ‘Who do you think makes the money?’ People began to see it’s us, that if we stopped working he wouldn’t have it. That’s the point when people realize that they’re worth more.”
The workers and unions have also realized the value of targeting the brand. “Having the discussion in public can influence a company like McDonald’s that is concerned about its largest asset: its brand,” said Owen Espley, a senior activist in the NGO War on Want.
The movement for the rights of fast food workers began in the United States in 2012 with a campaign for minimum wages to be almost doubled to $15, called ‘Fight for $15.’ In more ways than one, this inspired the struggle in the United Kingdom today, as well as in many other parts of the world.
Continuous agitations by workers in the US saw them winning higher wages in many cases. In the UK too, the movement compelled McDonald’s to hike the pay, but the benefits were limited to non-franchisee stores, which are only around one-fourth of the total stores in the country. There were also other restrictions which reduced the number of beneficiaries, leaving many disappointed.
Nonetheless, even these victories inspired workers across the world to assert themselves. In the UK, they are being backed by the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn, MP John McDonnell, as well as members of the Green Party.
A number of trade unions have been working to mobilize workers. McDonald’s employees have been organizing under the banner of BFAWU. Similarly, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) were instrumental in the unionization of UberEats and Deliveroo workers.
The growing strength of these unions has given hope to workers that while the path ahead is long, they will be able to forge a united struggle capable of challenging big corporations across the globe.