“If you don’t take them on globally, you won’t win” – how Fight for $15 in the US inspired the UK’s McStrike

“If the corporation you work for makes over US$21 billion in profit, why should you have to rely on state handouts?” (War on Want)
Cambridge, UK

“Most of us are on zero hours contracts, so we don’t know how many hours we will be getting each week. The managers cut one of my colleague’s hours so he struggles to pay rent. He constantly begs for shifts from co-workers, but the management doesn’t care,” said Annalise Peters, a McDonald’s worker in the UK city of Cambridge, who took part in a one-day strike on 1 May 2018.

“Many workers are students trying to afford Cambridge’s living costs,” she said, a situation made all the more unpalatable given that McDonald’s was summoned to the European Parliament last week over evidence that it had deliberate avoided paying over €1 billion in corporate taxes in Europe between from 2009 to 2013.

“They are often scheduled to work even after forewarning management about exams and lectures. Management think we are dispensable; all they care about is cutting labour costs and filling shifts.”

Peters joined colleagues from the British cities of Cambridge, Manchester, Watford and Crayford to participate in a ‘McStrike’ on 1 May 2018, which built on the first-ever UK strike for McDonald’s workers on 4 September 2017.

The workers have three demands: an end to zero hour contracts, a £10 (US$13.30) per hour minimum wage and the right to unionise.

They join a surge of global organising by fast food workers, which builds on the ongoing success of the ‘Fight for $15’ campaign in the United States to raise the minimum wage for all US workers to US$15 (approximately £11.20). Since the campaign began in November 2012, 22 million workers in the US have seen state and city level pay increases.

“Before the first strike we met with organisers and workers from the Fight For $15 campaign,” says Peters, who describes the US campaign as “inspiring”. But British fast food workers have also scored their own victories. In early 2018, McDonald’s workers received their biggest pay rise in ten years. However, this only applied to non-franchised stores, which represents roughly a quarter of the 1,270 stores in the UK.

McDonald’s workers organise with the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (also known as BFAWU or the Bakers’ Union), who said the offer was a small “step in the right direction”. Yet McDonald’s does not recognise the union. “They won’t even meet with us,” says Bakers’ Union president Ian Hodson.

Community organising is key

In the UK, it is not just McDonald’s workers that are taking action against poor wages and working conditions. Workers at the US restaurant chain TGI Fridays walked out three timesin the month of May alone over unfair pay. “Workers in other fast food restaurants are also organising, looking at what the McStrike has done. They are fed up.”

Hodson says the UK’s McStrike movement has learnt some key lessons from Fight For $15 in the US. “We are a community organisation, but recognising and strengthening the understanding of how you organise workers in a community is incredibly important.”

This means that it is not only the workers on the picket line and protests. “The public support was incredible,” explains Annalise. “All the different trades and unions came out to show their support, including the firefighters, teachers, university lecturers and students themselves.”

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There was some contention about how many McDonald’s workers went on strike as it is hard for those who are on zero-hour contracts to take industrial action. “At one point, McDonald’s claimed there was only one person on strike, which was complete nonsense. Their PR tries to insinuate that their 122,000 workers do not want to earn £10 per hour,” says Owen Espley, a senior justice campaigner from the NGO War on Want.

Espley says that although the strike was small it was significant in terms of the attention it brought to the issue. He also says that building a community around workers is crucial when you challenge a multinational:

“That precarious workers often have to beg their employers for hours demonstrates the heightened power imbalance between employer and worker. Community mobilisations around striking employees bring a third player – the public – into that discussion.”

Peters says the public support has been vital: “You often feel powerless against such a big corporate giant. But having people listen to what you say and share [your words] on social media gives you a voice.”

The visibility of the McStrike has also highlighted the issue of working poverty for those in the fast food industry. Sheila Salem, a McDonald’s worker for the past 18 years told theDaily Mirror newspaper: “My 15-year-old son needs to use the computer for his homework, but I’m always having to tell him to turn it off because we can’t afford the electricity. And I end up feeding us on cheap white bread and cheese a lot of weeks. There’s no money for luxuries…[such as] bananas, apples, fresh veg.”

Espley says: “Having the discussion in public can influence a company like McDonalds that is concerned about its largest asset: its brand.”

Aiming high, going global

Having ambitious aims is another idea inspired by Fight For $15. It is attempting to more than double the US-wide US$7.25 minimum wage, which has not increased since 2009. “US$15 seemed initially audacious,” Espley continues. “But this amount resonated with workers. We saw the need to set the bar high, as workers would only take on demanding actions to achieve life-changing results.”

Professor Amy Glasmeier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculated the US living wage as US$16.07 per hour in 2017. The Fight For $15 has lifted wages in many American states, with 13 now ensuring minimum wages over $10 per hour. By the early 2020s, the states of California, Washington DC and New York will reach US$15. And this affect workers far beyond the fast food industry.

“Fast food workers and Walmart workers went out at the same time. From the first Black Friday Strike [on 29 November 2012], you cannot separate the impact [of all the strikes],” explains Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University in New York. “After that, workers alternated the strikes, including clothing stores like Zara.”

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Large multinationals often resist unionisation, as Hodson from the Bakers’ Union explains: “They intimidate workers against talking to our organisers, threaten their jobs and make their lives difficult if they join the union. Money has even been offered to not join the union.”

In the US, widespread support was important to overcome such anti-union tactics: “Having famous people [such as the legendary labour rights activist Dolores Huerta], politicians and local and religious leaders escort the workers back into the stores made it hard for the employers to fire them,” says Bronfenbrenner. “And if they did commit unfair labour practices, all these people would be there to testify, alongside the media, who were very supportive.”

The fast food strikes and protests are global, with actions taking place in South Korea, Argentina, Malaysia and Italy. One of the bigger coordinated actions happened on 15 May 2014, when 33 branches of McDonald’s outside of the US held protests or strikes. Then, in 2015, fast food workers in 30 countries across six continents coordinated actions. The first UK strike in September 2017, coincided with actions in New Zealand, which resulted in workers securing NZ$15 (approximately US$10.57) an hour having already ended zero-hours contracts.

For Bronfenbrenner, the strategy is clear: “If you do not take them on globally, you will not win.”

Making things better for everyone

Decent work in the food industry is possible. Greggs, which is the UK’s largest bakery food retailer with over 1,850 shops, has a collective bargaining agreement. Its 22,000 employees do not have zero-hour contracts, nor age-related pay. “They are still a massively profitable company,” says Hodson, “and they do not find it detrimental to give their workers decent pay and conditions.”

And in the US, the strides made by domestic workers in recent years shows that even the most vulnerable workers can organise successfully. “I think workers in the most precarious work, who are often women of colour, were always willing to organise, but it was not until the 1980s that anyone even tried. But when they did – or the workers organised themselves – their resistance was brilliant.”

Hodson says there has been a similar shift in the UK. “I think unions and organisers once felt that precarious workers could not be organised: it was too difficult. Now these people are being valued. The moment we start talking to workers, about their rights, they said: ‘Yes, we have been waiting for someone to come along. Let’s organise!’”

He adds: “McDonald’s workers want to drive working conditions up for everyone. If the corporation you work for makes over US$21 billion in profit, why should you have to rely on state handouts or not have a decent life?”

Looking forward, Hodson predicts the UK campaign for £10 will expand.
“We will try to speak to McDonald’s. But if they refuse discussions and keep bullying our members, they will face further action. We are not stopping until they treat workers with dignity and respect.”

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