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4 October 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 12:29pm

McStrike! How young food industry workers are reviving British trade unions

McDonald’s, Wetherspoons, TGI Friday and UberEats workers are all participating in action.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On the face of it, trade union membership among young people in the UK is more of a melted McFlurry than a Big Mac. According to TUC figures, just 9.3 per cent of young core workers – aged 21-30, working full- or part-time, earning low to average wages – are union members. This proportion falls to just 6 per cent among those in the private sector, which employs 80 per cent of the young workforce.

Casualisation, zero-hours contracts, the gig economy and sham self-employment have both exacerbated the trade union membership decline and underlined the importance of protecting labour rights.

This modern (though some would describe it as Dickensian) way of work disproportionately affects young workers, who are more likely than generations before them to suffer from wage stagnation, insecure jobs in low-paid sectors and fewer training opportunities. In the last 20 years, as the world of work has taken this gloomy turn, the gap between what younger and older workers earn has increased by more than half.

That’s why the action of McDonald’s, Wetherspoons, TGI Friday and UberEats today is so significant. Not only is this coordinated strike action, it’s also in an industry impossible for the consumer to ignore – and it’s driven by young people. The UK’s food industry, with the precarious employment it brings, could revive the dwindling British trade union movement among young workers.

Speaking to young organisers over the past few months, from those involved in the TGI Friday strike to Deliveroo, UberEats and other courier app riders, there is clear communication going on in terms of how to unite with fellow workers and to organise.

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“WhatsApp groups,” says one delivery rider. “Everything is done on WhatsApp groups.”

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“If you can, go and stand in the restaurant [where you’re picking up food] and chat to the other riders around you, ask how it’s going, get their numbers,” says another.

“Search Facebook for people who have ‘TGI’ in their employment section, message them and ask them what problems they’re having,” says a TGI waitress, who used this tactic to contact workers at branches across the country, resulting in the UK’s first ever strike over tipping in May.

They also have advice for young consumers who feel conscious about the poor employment practices of companies they nevertheless love to use. “More often than not, there’ll be some workers outside McDonald’s after they’ve finished. Go and chat to them, ask what it’s like to work there, ask if they’re involved with a union,” one striker says.

“Talk to the courier, give them a tip, ask them about their working conditions – this is one of the ways we ask people to help, because folks are going to use these apps regardless really,” Chris, an UberEats courier, told the first ever international meeting of app riders recently.

This low-level, behind-the-scenes advice network is clearly having an impact. Today, workers from McDonald’s, JD Wetherspoon and TGI Fridays joined UberEats riders in a strike over pay – on a national day of action they’re dubbing “Fast Food Shutdown”.

Walkouts were planned across several UK cities (London, Bristol, Brighton, Newcastle, Plymouth, Southampton, Glasgow and Cardiff) along with a Leicester Square rally addressed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell (who backs the strike) and an hour-long surprise occupation of the lobby of Uber’s London offices by 50 people.

The coordinated action follows around six days of UberEATS action by couriers last month (spread out in different areas of the UK) after Uber announced a new pay structure reducing the per-delivery fee for its riders (in a move it claims will “boost” earnings in busier times). This brought traffic to a halt in central London and customers experienced delays in deliveries.

The strikes today are “small but growing”, in the words of TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, and the main unions driving gig economy action are also very small: the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

But as companies exploit young cheap labour, and the cost-of-living rises, young people will continue to develop new ways of connecting with each other to confront their employers: using the same technological nous, speed and ease upon which some of these start-ups pride their services. This could mean a change in fortunes not only for young workers, but for Britain’s ailing trade union movement.