I was going to write about the food industry. Instead I’m writing about something completely different: the fast food industry. We’ve all used them, even when we admit to ourselves that it’s just for convenience, and we’ve all been served by some teenager working hard behind the counter trying to make ends meet in austerity-hit food bank Britain.
Employees at McDonald’s in the UK are striking for the first time ever. On Monday 4th September a handful of workers at two branches (Cambridge and Crayford) are taking action because they want a wage they can live on; they want the right to be in a union; and they want an end to zero-hour contracts. So, it’s a few young people taking on the cornerstones of global neoliberal ideology. Who will win? Perhaps the consequences of this brave action might surprise us.
Let’s look at a few numbers: if you’re 17 and doing the same job as someone who’s 25 you will get less money. You will make £4.75 an hour in McDonald’s (a fraction above the minimum wage for that age group). The older employee will get £7.55. It might seem unfair, but unfair is how government likes it. So wether 17 or 25, if you want to pay for a roof over your head you are going to struggle to keep the rain out on those wages. Hence the strike. Because their working patterns are dictated by McDonald’s they can’t just demand another two or three shifts a week. Hence the objection to zero-hour contracts.
“We can confirm that, following a ballot process, the BFAWU have indicated that a small number of our employees representing less than 0.01% of our workforce are intending to strike in two of our restaurants.” So goes the statement from Head Office. And you can almost hear the follow-up statement: “They are free to work elsewhere, or get another job alongside the hours we provide for them.” And this is part of the problem: the idea that we need two jobs just to scrape by is now pretty orthodox, and it’s shamelessly hammered home by a government who’re happy to see the ‘gig economy’ get bigger as secure jobs get fewer. And working flat out for 40+ hours a week might get you the tiniest of tiny flat if you’re lucky. So far neoliberalism is winning hands down, especially when you consider that the boss of McDonald’s is on nearly £12m a year. It’s not trickle-down and it never has been; it’s simply gush-up economics. Time to plug that leak.
But look beyond that statement above from Head Office, because they really are worried about the knock-on effects of this action. And so they should be, because this is part of a global push for better conditions and pay at the fast food outlet, and it’s no coincidence that Monday 4th September is Labor Day in the US, where a similar series of strikes is also planned. And you can be sure that the bosses of other fast food outlets will be watching carefully, fearful for their wallets and their profit margins for shareholders. After all, these people live and die by their market prices, and strikes are bad for business (hence their staunch anti-union mentality).
The minimum wage the strikers want for the purposes of dignity - £10 an hour – is also the figure Jeremy Corbyn has settled on, and deputy leader John McDonnell has made no secret of his support for the strikers. You probably won’t find many Tories supporting this industrial action. In the meantime the strikers at Cambridge and Crayford have received advice from New Zealand counterparts, where similar actions were taken (successfully) against ZHCs. It’s good to see that globalisation works both ways.
We know the global elite don’t like unionisation, or paying more to workers, or being told that their working practices are immoral, and yet here they are, being confronted by a few brave souls who just want to have a slightly bigger slice of a massive burger-shaped cake. Perhaps this action could be the very thing that finally levels that ludicrously uneven neoliberal playing field.
Max Webster is the editor of Political Provocateur