As the Huffington Post and other outlets have publicised, staff at two McDonalds stores – in Crayford in East London and in Cambridge – have voted by over 95% in favour of strike action in their fight for fair treatment by the fast-food giant:
The strike action is scheduled for 4 September with a rally outside McDonald’s HQ in East Finchley on 2 September. Full details of both are below.
The case of the McDonald’s workers should be an eye-opener for many. Fast-food workers get a rough deal in more ways than one – low wages, insecure hours and a lack of sympathy engendered by the popular impression of them as low-skilled people doing the only job they can get: who hasn’t heard of teachers telling their pupils ‘If you don’t work hard, you’ll end up flipping burgers in McDonalds’?
But the reality is a long way from the cliché – at least as far as the workers are concerned. The case reveals vicious alleged bullying by managers and a company that staff say has ignored their concerns and wellbeing.
But the workers – the workers belie the popular misperception. While some are vulnerable and most are in precarious circumstances because of low incomes and insecure hours, they are people, first and foremost – people of huge courage and dignity.
The SKWAWKBOX was privileged to get the perspective of people involved on three levels: the McDonalds staff themselves, a local BFAWU (Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union) organiser and the General Secretary of BFAWU, Ronnie Draper. Taken together, their accounts reveal the challenge and a vision, with a huge opportunity. We’ll save the staff, whose story is the most compelling, until last.
Gareth Lane is the Barnsley-born union organiser who is helping the McDonald’s staff in their action. He told the SKWAWKBOX:
This is about bullying. It’s about zero-hours contracts [ZHCs], it’s about wages. We believe workers should receive at least a £10 living wage like Jeremy Corbyn has said. You only have to listen to the McDonald’s people to know they’re inspired by him – that’s clear.
They raised so many concerns with the company and it ignored them – until strike action was on the cards. Then they promised guaranteed hours to all staff but then there was no word for months.
When the strike was called, suddenly they said it would be implemented by the end of 2017, but McDonald’s have lied to us and to others around the world before, so we don’t believe their promise. We want a formal written commitment to do it, signed by the McDonald’s board and our General Secretary.
So we’re putting a table in front of their HQ on the 2nd of September, with Ronnie, the head of Unite New Zealand – and a piece of paper ready to sign. We’ll see whether they’re prepared to really commit themselves to do what they’ve said they’re going to.
But we don’t just want this to be a local thing – we’re looking for international solidarity.
The General Secretary
Ronnie Draper is the General Secretary of BFAWU and a straight-talking scouser. He had his doubts whether McDonald’s would come out to meet him on the second of September, but wanted to emphasise the scale of the problem his McDonald’s members are trying to resolve – and the scale of the opportunity if they succeed:
I suspect they won’t come out, I think they’ll be looking at us through the keyhole. McDonald’s is the second biggest employer in the world but they’re probably also the biggest exploiter of young people in the world.
These people sometimes don’t get a lot of sympathy – people just say, ‘if you’re not happy, get a different job’. But it’s nowhere near that simple.
The wages are a scandal: between £4.05-£7.05 depending on your age – and even lower if you’re an apprentice £3.50 – but bus fares, housing etc cost the same for under-25s as for anyone else.
McDonald’s are exploiting a pool of labour and they’re exploiting employment laws in this country to increase their profits.
First of all you need to understand how McDonald’s is as a company. They’re serial exploiters of young people in this country and even worse in the US. In the UK, most of their staff are young people, but in the US they employ more older people with families and all the costs that go with having a family.
But in the UK they can’t even afford to have families. You’ve heard of older people having to choose between ‘heating or eating’. But the young people working for McDonald’s and similar companies often have to decide between renting or eating.
If you don’t have guaranteed hours, you can’t get a credit rating, so a mortgage is out of the question and even renting is tougher.
By allowing companies like McDonald’s to exploit our laws and our young people, the government is storing up economic problems for the future. A typical family 2.2 kids but if things don’t change these young people are never going to be able to afford to buy a home or start family.
If that happens, then in the future we’ll be left with no option but to rely on immigrant labour again. I’m in favour of free movement, but it shouldn’t be something we need because we don’t have the people ourselves.
These companies count their profits in billions, not millions – but it’s a mistake to think of McDonald’s as a fast-food company. They’re a real estate company profiting from franchises. Their CEO makes something like £8,000 an hour, but they’re squeezing their franchisees, who squeeze their employees. McDonald’s profits are built on exploiting people at the bottom of the ladder.
I spoke at the TUC conference for a £10 per hour minimum wage and it was passed unanimously. Now it’s official Labour policy – and there’s nothing wrong in 2017 in demanding people earn at least £10 and hour. So this fight is about wages, it’s against ZHCs – but it’s also about treating people differently, in this country and elsewhere.
Next week I’m speaking at the IUF [International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations] World Congress – it’s a week before the strikes in London, so it’s a chance to build support there but also highlight issues we’re facing – and to give others confidence to take on companies like McDonald’s in their countries.
We’ve got the support of the SEIU in the US, the NGG in Germany and Unite NZ, who recently won a fantastic victory for fast-food workers in New Zealand, so it’s already an international effort, but we want it to go further. I’m meeting Unite NZ’s General Secretary tomorrow to talk strategy and look at how they won their have collective agreement with McDonald’s down there.
McDonald’s have sent out emails to people saying what they think should happen, but when grievances come up they want to avoid union involvement because they know how effective we can be. On pay, terms, bullying and harassment – we’ve been effective in all those areas.
We’ve got many years of experience and what we want out of it is, yes, an improvement to terms and conditions – but also to be like a pebble in a pool. This is not just about Cambridge and Crayford, we want a McDonald’s-wide agreement with all employees joining the union. For that, the support of people like the SKWAWKBOX, political leaders and others who are sympathetic to our ideals and can help us get the word out and recruit more people, in more companies, to the cause.
The BBC looking to do some filming on how young people are being suppressed earnings-wise and the significance of that. When I was growing up, there was this promise that you could do better if you worked hard but that promise has been broken. Now there are no guarantees – and lots of people work hard and don’t benefit.
We need a change of political landscape. A labour government under Corbyn. I’m speaking at the TUC, Ian (Hodson, BFAWU President] will be speaking at the Labour conference. At the TUC I’m speaking at the LRC, Morning Star and NSSN [Nat Shop Steward Network] fringes, so if people can get along to join hundreds of others in hearing what’s happening it will be brilliant.
The staff – and union activists
Last and anything but least, the SKWAWKBOX spoke to Shen Batmaz, who works at the Crayford store, an inspired and inspiring young women who is acting as spokesperson for both locations:
The reason we started to unionise was simply that we felt unsafe. There was a new manager bullying workers. We had one woman who worked on lobby for 10 years and she has special needs – she has quite severe aspergers. She asked not to be left working on her own on the lobby on late shift, because of bullying by a particular group of boys who came in regularly.
We knew about problem and she’d asked for help from managers – but they said there was nothing they could do. Instead of barring the trouble-causers, they did nothing and she got so stressed she swore at them and ran off shift.
The next day, the manager called her into his office. Instead of understanding her situation and siding with his staff member, he screamed at her and verbally assaulted her. He wrote her resignation on a piece of paper and demanded that she signed it.
She didn’t understand what was going on – she just knew someone was shouting at her and telling her what to do, so she signed. Her mum intervened and got her job back – but after that she was so terrified every time he was anywhere near her that you could see her shaking.
Another colleague – after standing up to same bullying manager he had all his shifts cut down to one every two weeks. He lost his flat because of it.
Another was a victim of domestic abuse in a past relationship, so the manager’s bullying manner was triggering all sorts of trauma for her. She went and explained her history and asked him not to behave like that.
His response? He just laughed and told her to leave her personal problems outside work. She started to be afraid to attend shift, ended up losing her accommodation and being homeless with her 4-year-old son.
We didn’t start a union in our stores to go on strike or join a movement, at first. We did it to protect each other. So many of us were off work with stress or depression – we wanted to work together and become a force of workers that wouldn’t be bullied like that any more.
We had put in grievance after grievance to head office but we were ignored. Our shifts were cut because of standing up for ourselves. We looked at the ‘fight for 15‘ in the USA, at NZ where they’ve unionised in McDonald’s, at Denmark where they’ve won an incredible £20-an-hour wage. We realised that even if we beat the bullying we’d still be stuck with a wage we couldn’t live on, so our anger turned into a fight for decent wages.
It’s not just for us, it’s for people working for McDonald’s and similar companies all over the country. Every time McD workers meet, there’s this kind of one-upmanship – like we’re all comparing scars, comparing how bad each other’s bosses are.
And it is bad. Sometimes we’re doing 3 or 4 people’s work, need to make the company realise it can’t save money by putting bullying managers in place.
We got angry – it’s too late for McDonald’s to bring Human Resources people in just because we’re going on strike. People always said you can never unionise McDonald’s – but we have a vision of organising the hard-to-organise, to make things better.
McDonald’s workers joke that we all have the same burns on our arms – that’s literal, but it also encapsulates how we all suffer the same things. This is not about just two stores – we want everyone working in fast food to join so we can all stand up together.
We get loads of messages of solidarity – but one big issue we all face is that lots of people still say we’re unskilled and just get what we deserve. We have people here with degrees or studying to get degrees. We have very intelligent people running shifts. Whether you’ve got two GCSEs or none, or a degree – we’re working for a living. We come to work to support ourselves and our families – we should be able to be safe at work and treated with respect. We’re human beings.
There’s this idea that 16-year-olds don’t have the same costs as older people. We have a 17year-old in Cambridge who left an abusive home, but he’s now living in a car on someone’s driveway because he doesn’t make enough to live. He gets only £5.65 an hour – apprentices get even less.
On the day before they offered us guaranteed hours – just a day before they were saying ‘Oh, it’s only 0.01% of our workforce’. Well that 0.01% scared them enough to make the offer of guaranteed hours. So what would 20% get? 50%?
And that’s just in this country. McDonald’s is the second-biggest employer in the world. If we can make them treat us properly, other employers around the world will have to look at following suit.
We will win – we can’t afford not to. We joined BFAWU because we heard they’d fight for us – and they have. [Union President] Ian Hodson talked to a manager at McDonald’s who doubted we could make any difference. He told Ian, “We’ve seen off GMB, we’ve seen off Unite”. Ian replied, “We don’t know when we’ve lost“. We want other people to join the Bakers to help us fight even better.
The way we see it, they promised us these contracts in April but we saw nothing for months. Now they’re promised by end of the year but have we had any meetings or communications? No.
So we’re taking it as a win but with a big pinch of salt. We don’t just want them to think they can get away with doing the legal minimum. It’s important to make sure that workers have a real choice, not forced to accept 4-hour guarantee just to meet the letter of the agreement.
There needs to be an option available to every worker of a 4hr, 16hr and 30hr contract options. That will mean that people in these stores – who currently have no way of getting on housing ladder and sometimes even have trouble renting because they have no guaranteed hours – can get into housing that is stable and suitable for us to live.
We’re really angry right now – 95.7% of us voted to strike. That’s how angry we are – one single person out of all the people balloted said no. We were told we’d never organise in McDonald’s but we’ve got thirty union members in Crayford out of around seventy staff that work regularly, so that’s just under 50% of regular workforce
By coming together and organising industrial action, we’ve got the bullying manager in Cambridge suspended and the manager in Crayford has disappeared off the face of the planet. People are taking bets on who will be the next manager.
The Tories hate collective action, that’s why they’ve made laws to attack the unions. But we’re making it work anyway.
I want to finish by saying that a lot of this is thanks to Jeremy Corbyn. He has come out publicly to support us but it’s much more than that. We’d never have organised if he hadn’t given us the courage and inspiration. We have 30-year-olds who had never voted in their lives, but they went out and voted for the first time because of JC. It’s amazing to see.
Supporting these inspiring people is not only the morally right thing to do. It also makes sense for everyone who wants a fairer, stronger society and a stronger economy where we can all afford to live and contribute.
And don’t forget to share their story so their ambition of a wider movement that revolutionises the fast-food industry and other low-pay, low-security sectors – for the good of our whole society.
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