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

Grievances over management and conditions have led to industrial action.

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”. 

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".

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.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.