by Shen Batmaz
4th September 2017 has been hailed as a landmark day for labour relations in Britain: it was the first time in British history that fast food workers from McDonald’s took industrial action against their international employers.
They followed in the footsteps of their brothers and sisters around the world, from New Zealand, to Japan and the USA. Across the globe McDonald’s workers have been taking action against the world’s second largest employer, and British McDonald’s workers had finally come out to join them.
For years the idea had been accepted that McDonald’s workers and other workers like them were impossible to organise – an idea that was regularly regurgitated by even the biggest unions. September 4th was historic because it was proof of the anger precarious workers feel, proof that we need to be ready to talk to these workers rather than continue to write them off.
But to the workers it was more than that: to the workers who walked out on that morning, this was the biggest thing they had ever done. It has been called a ‘David verses Goliath’ fight. To the 40 or so workers who walked out on that day, the idea of standing in David’s shoes and facing down the giant that is McDonald’s was an apt metaphor. The workers who walked out that day were intimidated for weeks leading up to the strike, told that we would be arrested, or pulled into back rooms and asked if we are in the union. The head office officials who oversee the stores involved in the September 4th strike did everything they could to scare the strikers, but they walked out anyway. The picket line was marked with bright red shirts, chants of “I believe that we will win” (a chant imported from the ‘Fight for $15’ McStrike campaign in America), and the optimism of workers who had finally decided that enough was enough and stood up together.
Our strike asked for four simple demands: We wanted a real living wage of £10 an hour, an end to McDonald’s mistreatment of staff and culture of fear, a union in the workplace and, finally, an end to zero hours contracts. Originally, our reason for joining the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers union (BFAWU) was because of one bullying manager, but with the union’s help we realised we could demand more by working together.
We put in grievance after grievance and made phone calls, but were ignored by McDonalds. It soon became clear that we were inconsequential to this multi-billion-dollar global corporation – they just didn’t care if we were unhappy. Workers in McDonalds are told that their low pay and treatment is their own fault, that they’re unskilled or stupid. I’m sure we all heard this idea in school: “If you don’t do well on your exams you’ll end up in McDonalds”. This giant corporation and others like them gain from negative opinion of their workers, if they foster these ideas of us as lesser members of society, the public doesn’t care what happens to us. McDonalds can get away with paying us and treating us how they want.
This is apparent in the gross gap between the CEO Steve Easterbrook, who earns £11.5m each year, and the youngest workers in British McDonalds who earn only £4.90 per hour. This gap is unacceptable. The people who do the jobs that make the money for the company are living in poverty and unable to afford even the basics, such as food or shoes, while the CEO and shareholders live lavish lives. McDonald’s makes billions in profit each year, and yet some of my co-workers have told me stories about the free meal we get at work sometimes being their only meal because they can’t afford to buy food. I’ve sat with a friend and colleague as she cried, because she couldn’t feed both her and her four-year-old son, meaning she went without food when not at work. I work with people who live in constant fear of homelessness, and have watched as other workers have seen that fear become a reality.
There are thousands of fast food workers in Britain claiming working tax credits and housing benefits. Theresa May says there is no money for our public sector, but how can she claim this while our government subsidises the low pay of companies like McDonalds? The fight against McDonald’s is important because how they treat and pay their workers sets bar low for other employment. When we push up from the bottom, when workers like us, Picturehouse or Uber win, everyone wins, because we push up the bar for workers across the country.
Our fight against McDonald’s is just beginning. While we watch our brothers and sisters in stores across the country face these conditions, we can’t rest. We have to organise. Our two stores need to grow into five stores, ten stores and onwards. We can win, but to do that we all need to come together to fight. There is power in a union, and what could be better for the left than an army of angry fast food workers ready to start a rebellion against their corrupt employers?
Shen Batmaz is an organiser of the McStrike campaign at McDonalds Crawford, and a member of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers union (BFAWU).