‘This will be our first strike in McDonald’s—but it’s not going to be our only strike,” fast food worker Shen told Socialist Worker. “We want to turn this into a youth revolt.”
Workers at two stores in Cambridge and Crayford in south east London are set to launch the first ever McDonald’s strike in Britain on Monday.
Their action is part of a campaign organised by the Fast Food Rights campaign and the Bfawu union. It was inspired by workers in the US who organised in their workplaces around the Fight for $15 campaign.
Tom, a Bfawu member who has been organising at the Cambridge store for the last two years, explained that the strike was significant because it’s “part of something that’s happening globally.”
It has taken long years of organising their workmates before the campaign was ready to call its first strikes.
Fast food workers are often seen as “precarious”, and too hard to organise. It’s true that a combination of poverty pay, zero hours contracts and bullying management mean that there’s a high turnover of workers.
As Tom explained, “Most members who I started out with are no longer working at McDonald’s. Those in the branch now have only been in the union for around six to eight months.
“We went through a gradual process of having branch meetings, discussing our issues and from there we went to where we are now.”
Bosses are constantly breathing down workers’ necks. This can create a sense of unity and solidarity among workers—but when things get really tough it can also drive them apart.
“The store is constantly busy,” explained Steve, another worker at the Cambridge store.
“It’s bad enough if there’s enough staff, but if there’s not enough then we have a very hard week. Everyone is arguing with each other because that’s the atmosphere you’re put in.”
These factors can mean make McDonald’s a hard place to organise—but the strikers are showing that it’s possible to do it.
As Tom said, “It’s very difficult because you’re always under the watchful eye of managers, everything we do has to be off site.
“When I started organising with another guy, he was quite vocal about his stance with the union. Management treated him badly and that led to him leaving.
“We had a woman union member who was at risk of losing her job. Management dropped the charges against her but then tightened procedures, making it harder to organise.”
He added, “This time round they’ve been following us and going up to people saying they can’t trust us.
“People have come up to us saying some bizarre stuff like we’ll go to prison if we carry on. But we’re still organising because people know that management are wrong.”
When Shen started working at the Crayford store around a year ago, there weren’t any Bfawu union members—and building up the union took time and political arguments.
“It was a process of trial and error to get where we are,” she explained.
“I went to the demonstration against the Tory party conference in Birmingham and I met people from Bfawu.
“I was told that the union would fight for us. I talked to them about our issues and they said, let’s unionise. Then I started to talk to other workers about why they should fight.”
This wasn’t a straightforward process—but it snowballed quickly. As Shen explained, “I got a friend and another worker on board. There were three of us sat with a union organiser, they listened to our issues and said, ‘How is this happening?’
“That’s when we all just looked at each other and said how is it happening, that’s when unionising our workplace got really serious.”
Tom explained that the workplace issues they organised around were different. “Some of the women were getting sexual harassment or casual sexism, some of the workers were worried about their right as migrants, some didn’t have breaks,” he said.
“When I started it was about going up to people and asking them if they knew what a union is, I got a few people and went from there.”
Bullying managers aren’t the only obstacle workers face when organising. They have to convince their workmates why they should join the union.
Shen said, “Young people really don’t know what a union is. Trying to overcome that was a process of trial and error.
“You can say that a union is going to give people services, but they say, ‘That’s great, but I may never need those services’ or, ‘I’ll be gone in six months’. We’re also in a quite a Tory area and people’s parents were saying, ‘Don’t join the union’.
“A Bfawu organiser 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.
“People thought we can all go together and complain about the air conditioning or make them do this.”
The bullying management and the hard work also has an effect, Shen explained.
“Workers are told that they’re stupid and they are abused.
“They begin to feel bad about themselves. It’s always about reaffirming the idea that they’re worth more than they think they are.”
McDonald’s claims itcan’t afford to pay a £10 an hour minimum wage. But CEO Steve Easterbrook got £12 million last year. Pointing out top bosses’ hypocrisy was an important part of helping the union activists organise.
“We asked people how much they thought the CEO of McDonald’s earns, some people said £20 to £30,” said Shen. “It’s actually £8,000 an hour—and the workers were outraged about it.
“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 realise that they’re worth more.”
As workers organised, some of their workmates’ ideas also began changing. “We had a guy who thought migrants were a problem,” Shen explained. “But in McDonald’s they saw that all workers were being treated the same, that migrants weren’t getting more.
“By organising in the union you could see this being shredded away.”
The specific issues that brought each store to strike differed, but it was this organising that has made it possible.
In Crayford, Shen explained, “One woman who was in the union put in a grievance against the manager.
“She wasn’t being paid and was evicted from her home along with her four year old son. People were asking how could this happen—so I said let’s strike.”
Management was also a big issue in Cambridge. Steve said, “There was an issue with bullying and sexual harassment. Workers got organised and now a manager has been suspended.”
And the excitement created by left wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaigning has also lifted people’s horizons.
Many people who thought that a £10 an hour minimum wage was a good idea now think that it’s something that’s possible to achieve.
“We had people who were 30 years old in the store and had never voted, but were supporting Jeremy Corbyn,” explained Shen. “We recruited the most people in the week before and the week after the general election.”
But the strikers rightly want £10 an hour now—not “by 2020” as Labour’s manifesto promised.
The excitement generated by Corbyn hasn’t been the only factor helping union activists to get organised.
Steve said that the recent media coverage their campaign has got mean that “people can see that the fight for decent pay is bigger than us and that we’re getting support.”
Socialist activists among the workforce have played an important role.
More workers have joined the union since the strikes were called—and it’s put manners on management. Tom said, “The union is growing.
“People have developed over the last few months, we now have some activists who are willing to go do speeches elsewhere.”
The workers are gaining support because their fight taps into a bigger mood. As Steve said, “It’s unheard of that people in our industry or the private sector are striking for such a high pay rise.
“You sometimes hear of people going for a 30p increase. We want £2.50—that’s life transforming.”
The McDonald’s workers’ strikes can inspire workers in other industries and other trade unions that it’s possible to fight for higher pay.
It’s time for the major unions to start a serious national fight over pay in the public and private sectors. It’s not enough simply to cheer on groups like the McDonald’s strikers.
They need our solidity and we need more of this action. Shen said, “After this we’ve got to organise like crazy—we’ll have two stores out this time, we want ten out next time.”
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