On Tuesday, a raw, windy London day, workers from six McDonald’s restaurants gathered across from the UK prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street to demand a £15-an-hour “real living wage,” fixed contracts, union recognition, an end to lower wages for workers under twenty-five, and eradication of the pay gap between men and women. (One 2019 study by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union — the organizers of the UK fast food workers’ movement — found that eight of ten UK women work for employers who pay men more.) Protesters also carried signs that called for an end to “McSexual Violence, McShame,” announcing that the #MeToo movement had come to 10 Downing Street by way of the far-flung immigrant neighborhoods ringing London where these McDonald’s strikers live and work.
Tuesday’s action was the third year in a row that employees from McDonald’s, TGIF, Wetherspoon, Uber, and food delivery workers walked out of their workplaces to stage a “McStrike.” Their action this year, as for the last two, was marked by morning rush-hour picket lines, the better to disrupt business as usual in this ever-thrumming, rushing megacity. (McDonald’s released a statement Tuesday, saying: “We are extremely disappointed that a very small number of our people in just a handful of our restaurants are considering industrial action. . . . Their potential actions do not represent our people. We are committed to investing in our workforce, listening to and doing what is right by them.”)
Single mother Melissa Evans walked the line in front of the South London Wandsworth McDonald’s where she has worked for years to support her son. On the day of the strike, she wore a broad grin. Every time I looked at her, she seemed radiant with happiness.
“I had a breakdown from all the stress of the job,” she told me. “Had to take a leave for my mental health.” Her stress had not come from any one aspect of the job, she said, but from all of it: “the verbal abuse, the uncertain hours.” Evans worked minimum ten-hour shifts, four days a week and more to support her son. And still it wasn’t enough. She said she often had to choose between gas, electricity, and rent. She put food on her son’s table, but she ate only what she could cadge at work. That was the only food she got some days. “And I knew I wasn’t the only one.” She said she suffered broken bones on the job and pelvic strains from lifting heavy supplies and turning too fast in cramped spaces under pressure from managers to keep her speed up. When she came back to work after her leave, Evans told me, the manager punished her by giving her only one day a week of work.
“We’re going backward,” she says. “The corporations and politicians make it seem like their austerity policies are to make up for what workers get, a little more pay, or benefits. Austerity for who? They’re not the ones living on nothing. They’re not the ones who work forty hours a week or more and can’t afford to pay rent.” She grimaced. “This is like a war, a war on poor people, a war on our families.”
The people I work with are the most wonderful people. But we’re all under so much stress and strain on a daily basis that we can’t think ahead and sometimes we can’t even function. We are hard-working and skilled — yet our abilities are not recognized by managers or the public. We get shouted at. We get disrespected. I don’t go to work to be spoken to like a child.
So why was she smiling so broadly, walking an early-morning picket line in the cold rain? Organizing feels great, she said. “It’s like my birthday and Christmas and the holiday season all rolled into one.” She said she feels good that she’s speaking out, feels good that she’s helping her coworkers, feels good most of all that she’s teaching her son to stand up for himself. “I was born into poverty, and now I’m bringing my son up in poverty. He needs to see that there’s actually something else out there in the world, so he can aim for something better.”
Worker organizer Lewis Baker was touched by how much support the strikers have gotten. Both last fall and this year there were actions across the UK. In Manchester and Bristol, Plymouth and Brighton, Cardiff, Southampton, and Glasgow, union activists walked picket lines in front of McDonald’s just at the hour sleepy commuters were thinking of picking up their morning Egg McMuffins. For the most part, the picket lines held. Apart from a few profanities shouted at the strikers, Baker told me the response was positive. “A lot of our regular customers supported our picket and refused to go into the store,” Baker said. “That made me feel valued — that the customers aren’t just there for McDonald’s, they care about the employees.”
The fast food campaign in the UK has largely been organized and led by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union, one of England’s oldest independent trade unions, with roots in nineteenth-century Jewish immigrant socialism. It has about twenty-five thousand members nationwide. I asked national president Ian Hodson, a former printer, biscuit maker, and single dad from Blackpool, what he hoped the #McStrike campaign would achieve.
“These are the jobs now,” Hodson says. “These are the manufacturing jobs of today. We have to make these union jobs.” About one-third of British workers in 2019 are in food work, he said. And only one in forty jobs created in Britain since the 2008 recession is full time. A 2019 study of low-wage work in the UK commissioned by BFAWU found that Britain’s lowest-wage workers — majority female, of all educational backgrounds, including people with graduate degrees and between the ages of sixteen and their sixties — worked between two and a staggering seven part-time jobs to try to make ends meet.
Hodson believes that three years of #McStrike actions have yielded economic, psychological, and political victories. “After the first strike, McDonald’s granted the largest pay raises it had ever granted.” As in the United States, these raises only went to a select group of workers: the 15 percent of UK McDonald’s owned by the corporation. Still, it was a win. The company also promised to provide fixed-hour contracts to its UK workers rather than the “zero-hours contracts” that employers like to say offer workers flexibility but actually force workers to take on multiple jobs to survive. There have been union victories for workers at Hovis bakeries and Greggs chain bakeries. Still, workers will have to keep the pressure on — Lewis Baker says that things get better for a while after each strike, then revert. That’s why they are simultaneously trying to build broad alliances and change UK labor law.
Hodson says that each #McStrike has paved the way for future gains, and made it easier for the union to convince fast food workers, bakers, pub and retail workers, and university adjunct professors to try to unionize. Jo Grady of the University and College Union was drawn to the movement by the repeated strikes. Speaking at the November 12 rally, she expressed the solidarity of university professors and graduate students. “We are with you,” she said, standing bareheaded in the downpour. “Where you walk a wet picket line, we will walk a wet picket line.”
Says Hodson: “Every one of these strikes gets media attention and also draws attention to the fact that our taxes shouldn’t be going to subsidize corporations that don’t pay a living wage. If they didn’t, we would have more money for decent housing, for libraries, for schools.”
For Hodson, this is not an academic matter. Like so many working-class Londoners, he was incensed by the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, during which a public housing project burst into flames, killing seventy-two tenants and burning seventy more. “They used flammable cladding because it was cheaper,” Hodson says. “Our taxes shouldn’t be going to support McDonald’s exploiting workers.” It would have cost only £5,000 more to use inflammable cladding.
Perhaps the biggest gain workers have won after three years of “McStrikes” is support from the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has announced his support for ending the youth wage. “Workers should be rewarded for their work,” he said after the 2018 strike, “not their age.” Shadow chancellor John McDonnell also came out to stand with the McDonald’s strikers on November 12.
“We are not asking for the world,” he said in sonorous, politician tones to the strikers and their supporters. “We are simply asking that workers be able to share in the wealth they help to create.” He then urged the workers to get out the vote for Labour in the upcoming December 12 election, promising that a Labour government would bring what the workers in their red shirts were asking for: “a new deal for UK workers.”
As in the United States, this is an uphill battle, and one waged by a tiny minority of a vast fast food workforce. Shop-to-shop organizing is painstaking and difficult, especially given changes in British law that have made it more difficult than ever for workers to unionize. That said, the percentage of the private UK workforce that is unionized is growing, even as public-sector union density has diminished. Low-wage workers — from food to retail to adjunct professors — are the driving force behind the new dynamism in the UK labor struggle. Hodson believes “we have clout beyond our small size.”
As the demonstration broke up, Melissa Evans, Lewis Baker, and one more McDonald’s worker waited outside the gates to 10 Downing Street so they could deliver a letter to Boris Johnson laying out their demands. For a time, they stood in the rain, hands on the locked gates, looking in. Then the gates opened, and the three McStrikers, along with an allied activist from an NGO called War on Want, disappeared into 10 Downing Street.
“You better wear gloves,” a colleague shouted after them. “Just in case Boris tries to shake your hand.”