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4 September 2017

McStrike: Why McDonald’s staff are taking to the picket line

Grievances over management and conditions have led to industrial action.

By Jason Murugesu

On Monday, more than 200 people gathered at Parliament to show support for the first ever strike by McDonald’s workers in the UK. As demonstrators and strikers posed for a photo in front of Westminster Palace, they chanted: “I believe that we will win”. 

The dispute has, like the Picturehouse Cinema strikes before it, become a focal point for discontent at the UK’s treatment of low paid staff.

Many at the demonstration wore the red of McDonald’s. Others had painted their faces to resemble an evil incarnation of McDonald’s mascot Ronald McDonald. There was a plethora of flags and signs and some of the protesters were selling copies of the Socialist Worker which bore the headline “Supersize My Pay”. 

Representatives from trade unions led speeches calling for “solidarity” while speakers included Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Emma Dent Coad – who won the Kensington constituency in a surprise victory for Labour in May.

Dent Coad told the crowd that if they could turn Kensington red, anything was possible, and a one of the union reps issued a rallying cry of “if you win, we all win”. 

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The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had also earlier posted a message of support on his Facebook page which concluded with the call “for all fast food workers, the young, the low-paid and the unorganised to join trade unions and organise in their workplaces to improve their lives”.

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At the centre of the strikes is a group of more than 40 workers from the Cambridge and Crayford branches of McDonald’s. One of them was Tom Holliday, a 24 year old who organised the strike in Cambridge. A slight man, wearing a bright red #McStrike t-shirt, and a plain black cap, Holliday said he hopes the strike makes the public realise that the counter behind the “family friendly” facade “is a completely different place”.

Only two years ago the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) which is representing the strikers had no significant presence in either McDonald’s branch. Holliday was the first Cambridge branch worker to join the BFAWU after reading a book on the significance of trade unions in the UK. Three months later he began trying to convince his colleagues to follow suit in response to what he says was the wholly inadequate response of the company to allegations of sexual harassment.

A McDonald’s spokesperson told the New Statesman that the strike was “solely related to our internal grievance procedures and not concerning pay or contracts” but that the company is “unable to comment on individual HR cases, as they are private and confidential”.

Holliday claims further cases of sexual harassment and bullying were not dealt with effectively, which helped him convince more of his fellow workers to join the BFAWU. Of the 90 people who work at the Cambridge store, 11 have now joined the BFAWU.

Holliday also says that when workers did join up, managers would go around spreading misinformation about the risks they were exposing themselves to, such as saying it was illegal or that they could lose their jobs.

He recalls one instance where “a manager went into the crew room at lunch break and said ‘why are you following this guy? He never shaves, how can you possibly trust someone with facial hair’.”

Holliday may have taken the manager’s criticism to heart on one level, as he is currently carrying stubble that can’t be more than a day old.

Earlier, both sets of strikers had picketed their respective branches with supporters handing out leaflets to customers desperate for a McMuffin. Justine Canady, a supporter of the strike, who had joined the picket-line in Crayford recalled the “sense of camaraderie” among the many who woken up in the early hours to attend. At the following solidarity demo outside King’s Cross McDonalds, one of several planned throughout the country from Manchester to Cardiff,  students from nearby SOAS and UCL played drums, listened to speeches from Trade Unionists and canvassed officer-goers rushing to get lunch.

As I too had not had lunch, I thought I’d enter the McDonalds to do a little research. Ordering my fries and cheese-bites, I asked the assistant behind the counter what she thought of the dispute. She grinned, and said: “I support the strike” before handing me a card asking me to fill in my feedback.