For the first time ever, UK workers at the global fast food chain restaurant McDonald’s went on strike this week (September 4) in their fight against low pay and zero hours contracts.
Taking a leaf out of the playbook of American fast food workers, whose mass walkouts since 2012 have enjoyed significant success, the workers from Crayford and Cambridge McDonald’s chains defiantly stood their ground as people from around the world offered their solidarity.
Unite Community members joined the picket lines and a rally at Parliament, in support of the 40 workers, many of them young people, some of them rendered virtually homeless by low wages.
Labour party leaders, including shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and activists from other unions also offered their support at the rally at Parliament, as the workers took an historic step in their first ever strike action that some speculate will spread like wildfire across McDonald’s and other fast food chains.
The striking McDonald’s workers’ demands are simple – all they want is an end to zero hours contracts, which the company itself has said it would do but has yet followed through across all its UK franchises, a higher wage of at least £10 an hour, and union recognition.
UNITElive caught up with two McDonald’s workers on strike on Wednesday – they had come along to support Unite’s protests against Sports Direct.
Shen and Lewis (pictured) are both paid just above £7 an hour – on this meagre wage they struggle to earn a living in one of the most expensive regions in the UK.
Lewis lives in London, where he says, he’s just barely able to make ends meet.
“Once I pay my rent and other bills, I have virtually nothing,” he explained. “I can’t afford to do anything else except just get by.”
Shen cannot afford to move out of her parents’ home.
“And I’m £1,500 in debt that I cannot pay off. I’ve got letters coming through the door every week with ‘last request for payments’,” she told UNITElive. “Sometimes I think the position I’m in is hard but for some of our other younger colleagues it’s even worse.”
That’s because, Shen explains, workers of different ages are paid different rates based on minimum wage laws – those aged 21 to 24 need only be paid £7.05 an hour, those 18 to 20 years old £5.60, and for those under 18, £4.05 is the minimum hourly rate.
“We have colleagues who are under 17 earning about £5 an hour – some of them don’t live with family and cannot afford to pay rent so they’ve literally been made homeless,” Lewis said.
Lewis and Shen came out to support the Sports Direct workers on Wednesday, they explained, because they can relate to their struggles working on zero hours contracts.
“Zero hours contracts are just flexibility for the employers. When they need us, they give us all the shifts they want, but as soon as they don’t need us we get no shifts,” Lewis said. “They’re all based on favouritism too – if the managers like you they’ll give you the hours, if not you won’t get the work you need to survive.”
Shen and Lewis both believe that their fight against insecure work is made stronger through solidarity with workers like them across the board.
“It’s all about solidarity,” Lewis argued. “We’re fighting together to put an end to zero hours contracts especially. McDonald’s is one of the biggest employers in the world and in many ways they set the benchmark – if we can pressure them to get rid of insecure contracts and put their wages up, a lot of companies like Sports Direct will do the same. Everyone needs to come together and support each other.”
“If we’re brave enough to step outside and do what we’ve done at McDonald’s, we encourage other workers in similar situations – those in Sports Direct and others in hospitality and retail – to stand up and do the same. If we fight together, we rise together.”
Unite Community south east London branch secretary Ellen Morrison also believes that solidarity is the key to success in the fight for decent work.
Just like Shen and Lewis, members of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) who came out to support a Unite-organised action against Sports Direct, Ellen likewise joined the picket lines in support of McDonald’s workers.
“There are huge parallels between the two campaigns,” she explained. “What we’re talking about isn’t specific to just McDonald’s or just Sports Direct either. Zero hour contracts are at a record high. It’s happening everywhere, especially in hospitality and retail. We’re starting a movement – we’re not only showing the government, we’re showing employers too that we won’t tolerate what they’re doing to us.”
The Labour party has stood firmly behind the striking McDonald’s workers; their demands align exactly with the party’s policies.
“Our party offers support and solidarity to the brave McDonald’s workers, who are making history,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on the day of the strike. “They are standing up for workers’ rights by leading the first ever strike at McDonald’s in the UK.
“Their demands – an end to zero-hours contracts by the end of the year, union recognition and a £10 per hour minimum wage – are just, and should be met.”
Shen says that this week’s strike is only the beginning, with more and more McDonald’s workers in different branches joining together and organising.
The Guardian today reported that a video of McDonald’s workers, featuring Shen and another colleague, has gone viral – an estimated one in four of all UK McDonald’s workers has seen it.
If the more than 2m views is anything to go by as Unite and other unions step up in the fight against insecure work, this could be the start of something big.
- Photo by Stefano Cagnoni