At 12a.m. this morning, Georgina, a worker in the Newmarket Road McDonald’s in Cambridge, walked out of work to begin a strike. Strike action is taking place today in two workplaces in the UK and is coordinated with international action in the USA, where McDonald’s workers have been fighting for better pay for the last few years. This marks a huge change in the mood of casualised workers in the UK, along with recent action by Deliveroo and Uber workers, showing that young workers have both the ability and the grit to unionise and fight for a better life.
It’s no coincidence that the two McDonald’s workplaces which voted to go on strike are situated in the most expensive cities, where it’s almost impossible to find a place to live on minimum wage. Yet a huge conglomerate like McDonald’s, with its multi-billionaire CEO, refuses to pay its workers enough to live a dignified life. Outraged workers on the picket lines told of their experiences living in absolute poverty despite being in work. Some are homeless or couch surfing. A representative of the BFAWU (Bakers Union), which is heading the strike, told us about one woman who was homeless with her four-year-old child.
The Cambridge McDonald’s voted by a huge (95.7) percentage to strike for better pay, guaranteed hours and fairer treatment from a bullying management. Similarly, in Crayford workers also voted to walk out for better conditions. In London, Dan reported that “the mood of the workers there [in Crayford] was that of jubilant defiance, they were happy to finally take a stand for themselves and others, as people in cars honked in support constantly over the hour and a half picket. They thanked all the others who came out to show solidarity, stating that it was providing them with a boost of confidence needed to break through their isolation and to continue this struggle.”
We managed to join both pickets and interview some of the workers about their reasons for striking and their hopes for the future.
In Crayford, Lewis, one of the workers on strike, explained why he walked out today. “In this store, there is bullying from managers. They intimidate us, swear at us, shout at us, abuse at us and treat us like shit. It’s not fair. A friend of mine, another worker, was called a fucking idiot by manager, who also sends abusive messages on WhatsApp. No one deserves that treatment. The £10 living wage is a good idea and I want that too, but conditions need to change first.”
Workers were brought in from another outlet to cover the labour of the strikers, whilst management simultaneously intimidated other workers, stalking them on social media and threatening them in meetings. Similarly bullying tactics were carried out in Cambridge. But reps from multiple different unions called for a response to this from the public as well as from the workers. “If any of these brave workers is penalised for what they did here today, we should occupy this workplace and others, and shut it down until the union’s demands are met.” Said one speaker in Cambridge.
Ellie, a worker in Cambridge, explained how in the last five years, conditions have got worse with increasing casualisation and rule changes. She explained how she had worked at the McDonald’s for years, and yet she was not respected by management. The workers told us about the existence of bullying and sexual harassment, as well as shamefully low pay. One 17-year-old worker, Tyrone, told the Guardian last week that he was paid only £4.75 an hour- half the living wage. Workers explained how they had had the hours that they need cut as part of a bullying and intimidation campaign from management. As Monica, a Spanish worker on strike in Crayford said, “They [the bosses] get all the money and they get that money for our work! We work really hard and want more money for the work we do.”
We had a long discussion with two workers in Cambridge, Georgina and Ellie, which is transcribed here:
Can you describe your average day at work?
Georgina: Immediately when I get into work, I will be put somewhere I don’t want to be, somewhere I’m uncomfortable. I’m not allowed to move, I’m not allowed to do anything. If I’m on a 3pm-11pm evening shift, I will not get my break until about 9 o’clock at night. I will be stuck in a box room, in a window doing cash for customers and be expected to stay up there, not speak to anybody or be around anybody, and they think that’s OK. I will then not be able to leave until about half past eleven, because the management have to cash up my till and make sure it’s right, and they take their time doing it. In my average day, I will have grown men make sexual comments about me. Nobody should get treated the way we do.
What do you think this strike will mean for other casualised workers and fast food workers?
Georgina: I hope it will show that if you’re not treated right – and right now, workers aren’t treated fairly – you can fight back and go on strike. Even if you don’t feel powerful, you are.
What should people do to help the strike effort?
Ellie: Just keep doing what you’re doing now. Carry on backing us up and make it public. Share it. Put pictures up all over social media, and tell everybody you can. We’re writing history today, make sure everyone knows – because then we can make more history!
What will you do if after today, the bosses don’t listen to you or meet your demands?
Georgina: Carry on. Fight. Keep fighting until we get what we want. We’re not going to stop until they listen. If we have to keep doing this then I’ll happily do this. They need to realise what they’re doing. It’s not right. They need to realise the way they treat us is not right and it should not be this way in a workplace. I’m here for decent pay because I work very hard, long hours. And if they don’t listen, we’ll carry on.
Is there anything else either of you would like to say?
Georgina: That if anyone ever feels like they are being mistreated in a workplace, try and find a union. Our union has been the biggest part of this struggle and they are the reason I’m here today. Because I want to tell people that my workplace is disgusting, horrible and sexist, and I want people to see what’s happening behind closed doors.
This mood is widespread. Despite the bullying of management, the workers were prepared to strike, and strike again until their demands are met. “If it takes two days, five days or twenty days,” one worker said, “we will strike until we win.” It seems likely that this strike will spread, as workers all over the country will be enthused by this bold, militant mood. But important too is the impact this will have on other casualised workers. The realities described by Georgina, Ellie, Lewis and Monica are the daily lives, not just of fast food workers, but of young workers everywhere who are struggling to survive on low pay and zero hours contracts. This strike shows the power and fighting spirit that they can muster, and the action that they will be willing to take. It is young workers in particular, and the working class in general, who have been forced to bear the load of the financial crisis and austerity for a decade now, despite not being at fault for it.
Perhaps the most striking moment of the picket in Cambridge was one of the strikers, who led the other workers and supporters in a chant from the Fight for $15 movement in the USA. “We want fair pay now” the picket chanted. “And if we don’t get it– shut it down!”
by Laurie O’Connel (Cambridge Marxists), and Dan Langley (KCL Marxists)