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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.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.